Theology-Speak and the Response of Jesus

Theology-Speak and Spiritual Abuse Illustrated by Criswell StoryShortest post ever. But I think this tale by Pastor W.A. Criswell illustrates 1 Corinthians 1:19 where God says: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Criswell once told this story:

“The modern theologians, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Bultmann and Tillich met the Lord Jesus, and the Lord asked these famed, illustrious theologians, ‘Who do men say that I am?’

“They replied, ‘Some say you are John the Baptist, raised from the dead. Some say you are Jeremiah, or one of the prophets, and some even say you are the Christ, the Son of God.’

“Then the Lord said to these illustrious theologians, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

“Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Bultmann and Tillich chorused back their learned answer: ‘Thou art the ground of being, thou art the leap of faith into the unpenetrable unknown. Thou art the existential, unphrasable, unverbalized, unpropositional confrontation with the infinitude of inherent subjective experience.’

“The Lord looked at them and said, ‘Huh?'”

I survived a church where much spiritual abuse came tangled in a net of words over three syllables long. Even as a seminary grad now familiar with such terminology, I cringe when I hear it used in daily life. Pastors should remember that theology-speak usually separates them from people in the pew. It creates the illusion of special insight or rare intelligence. It may unintentionally lead to parishioners accepting your words without critical evaluation. Effective communication, however, demands that complex concepts be clothed in the humblest garb.

Otherwise, we risk making even God say, “Huh?”

20 comments on “Theology-Speak and the Response of Jesus

  1. Great article, Steve. I’m feeling an urge come over me to tweet this article and tag certain people 🙂 haha Must tame those urges.

    • Ha! Indeed. I was guilty of using this language until my cult broke apart. It made me feel sophisticated, powerful, and elevated. Nothing like dropping “transubstantiation” or “the hypostatic union” in a conversation at the grocery store to make you feel like you’ve got God figured out.

  2. note: above comment was my shortest ever

  3. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

    Matt. 18:3-5
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    3 and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you [a]are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;

    Have we not forgotten something? To become like children of God is to be simple and humble. The wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit; the knowledge flows forth from the bowels of heaven. Do these men claim such authority? Are they divine?
    I have now seen with mine own eyes and experienced the joy and rest that comes in the simplicity of Christ and not in the lofty words of a famous theologian. As I can tell, no lofty words ever saved a soul from the clutches of death and no high language ever soothed the sorrow of someone dying or going through abuse or hardship.
    Reading and studying God’s Word without a commentary or book has been wonderful and refreshing- it is just me and Jesus.

    John 14:26
    But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

  4. Words mean things. Often, the words longer than three syllables carry a more precise meaning than the shorter ones and thus aid in communication (speaking the truth in love) — as long as the listener understands. Do we want a society where the word “justification” is never spoken?

    Amen to the warning against pride — but is it inherently more arrogant to use two five-syllable words than five two-syllable words? The question to ask is, how do we use our words (large or small) to edify instead of puff ourselves up? In the church this may mean patiently teaching others the glorious truths of the Bible.

    • John H, welcome!

      I agree with your comment. Consider it added to the post as part of the discussion. My concern is with leaders who use words to elevate themselves rather than to elevate Christ. You are correct–small words can do this as much as large words. In my experience both in my former church and at seminary, it was usually the longer words which seemed to create an intentional distance between speaker and listener. There is nothing inherently wrong with a long word, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with a long knife. But both may do serious damage when wielded by the wrong person.

      Thanks for a helpful comment.

      Blessings, Steve

  5. I am certainly no expert in theologians, although I’ve read my share, but I am quite surprised at Criswell’s inclusion of Bonhoeffer not declaring that “Jesus is Christ”. I would imagine this article is accurate: Check out “Theological Legacy” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer. In my understanding Bonhoeffer was raised in a liberal theology but in the end was more conservative. I suppose this isn’t the point of your post… but I do agree with John that words have meaning. I don’t know that I can fault theologians for giving a theological response! And I sort of doubt Jesus would say “Huh”… I guess my ire goes up against a quote which is seemingly anti-intlelectualism, that somehow God is apposed to deep thought or five-syllable words. Simple truths, words, and emotions can be used by those in powerful/abusive positions just the same as a complex word or phrase. I guess my beef is not so much with your ‘take away’ Steve, as much as I don’t really like the ‘joke’ and feel that it is misleading.

    • Yes, NannyG, I believe Bonhoeffer was one of the good guys in that otherwise bad list of theologians. . Bonhoeffer is well worth reading. The rest—not.

    • Hi NannyG,

      As always you offer a helpful perspective. No need to light a torch, however–I agree with you that Bonhoeffer has left a powerful legacy. I just chose to keep Criswell’s story intact. I can’t claim to speak for others, so it’s helpful to hear that some of my brothers and sisters have benefited from some of the more erudite theologians. Even while in seminary I noticed that a certain percentage of my fellow students found commentaries and theological treatises almost worshipful. Praise God!

      My concern is not with theologians in general–or long words in particular–but in the misuse of long, theological-sounding words to overawe parishioners and create a false dichotomy between pastor and laity. That constitutes spiritual abuse. I have heard some pastors or teachers use enormous theological terms with such grace and sense that they ministered to my soul. I have heard others use the same words in ways which obscured Jesus and left me feeling graceless and ashamed. It is not the word, but the speaker, who constitutes a danger. Does that make more sense? The danger of a short post is not nuancing enough. I can see that I failed to communicate my message effectively. Thanks for keeping me honest.

      Blessings, Steve

  6. “It is not the word, but the speaker, who constitutes a danger.”

    So true Steve,……..
    We can benefit from others words, quotes, and writings, but when those verbiages are use to control and manipulate others is when trouble occurs. This is why it is critical to know oneself and their relationship with Christ. When we have the proper understanding of the Holy Spirit and His role in our lives we can then realize that others do not have that right to manipulate us- we can stand on our own two feet. I have just recently come to that complete realization and it is truly freeing. I can benefit from good reading, but I can also separate myself from that which is not beneficial to my growth in Christ. We can also, in turn, be gentle and compassionate to those who are on their own sanctification journey in the Lord.
    When we realize too, that those in Christ are growing in SANCTIFICATION, not justification; we will have a better perspective on the Christian walk. Justification is a one time deal; the rest is just building on that foundation that was already laid by our acceptance of Jesus’ payment for us.

    It is a beautiful thing to know that we can rest- reading the Psalms should definitely solidify any doubts of this.

    • Well said, T4Him. There is such freedom in understanding the difference between justification and sanctification. And we are free to listen to certain writers and speakers or reject them. Nowadays if someone strikes me as overbearing I just tune them out, no matter how many degrees they have or how convinced they are that they speak for God.

      • in other words, Steve: the medium is the message

        and Amen, Faith: When we have the proper understanding of the Holy Spirit and His role in our lives we can then realize that others do not have that right to manipulate us—we can stand on our own two feet.

        well said!

  7. Consider, also, Phillip Brooks’ famous saying: “Preaching is truth poured through personality.”

  8. Fwiw, in terms of truth and passion and personality and fire, here’s Martyn LLoyd-Jones thoughts on this:

    What is Preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. . . . A man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.”

    “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” – Marshal of France and military theorist, Ferdinand Foch

  9. David
    I think we are on the verge of seeing those “souls on fire”……
    The Lord is doing a lot of waking up lately.
    P.s. I hope everything is well with you and your church situation

    If was not for the internet, we would not have these wonderful blogs boldly proclaiming truth in the darkness. Praise the Lord for you guys!

    • You know, Faith, tomorrow is my one year blog-iversary. I set it up last June specifically to address my church’s Elders and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Last June 1st I had given the session of Fourth Presbyterian an ultimatum for the abusive elder to step down or I would tell my story. He stepped down but they wanted me to engage in a process of arbitration with their presbytery. That never came about.

      So sometime this week I plan to make a public request for arbitration from others within the Body of Christ to come alongside these Elders and myself in some blog-versations toward understanding and destroying some of the adversarial (and evangelical) strongholds of blindness and rebellion in said church.

      I’m going into this battle with this realization: Fourth Presbyterian of Pittsburgh is merely a microcosm of the blindness and rebellion; the misunderstanding and abuse of spiritual authority found nearly everywhere.

      Largely, at Fourth, I believe it comes down to a lack of discernment in high places—a lack that involves no knowledge of that lack; a blindness that thinks it sees.

      Education is Key!

      So it’s a huge project. . it will be more directly underway soon, I pray. There’s a lot involved in this effort to hold these men accountable.

      Appreciate your prayers.

  10. thanks for your reply Steve. I think you did make your stance pretty clear. As I mentioned in my post, it wasn’t so much that I disagreed with you, it was just the quote that got up my ire. 🙂 I’m not sure its your fault for a short post just as much as it is my ability to skim/read quickly.

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