The Peculiar Language of Christianity

Our church just started a sermon series on Ephesians, and in the introductory sermon Ken mentioned how Christianity has its own vocabulary. Many key “terms” in this vocabulary are contained in Ephesians 1:1-14. I was reminded of something William Willimon, a conservative United Methodist bishop in Alabama, wrote about.

Willimon, author of the foreword of Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity, has written and spoken extensively on the “peculiar” or “particular” speech of Christianity. Christianity has its own language, and Christians must sit and learn this language. Even a quick read of Ephesians 1 reveals many Christian-specific terms that cannot be divorced from the faith. A few of the many words or themes that I noticed include:

-In or through Christ (v. 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13; compare to John 14:6)
-Will/purpose of God (v. 1, 5, 9, 11)
-Predestined (v. 4, 5, 11)
[As an aside, I’m reminded of R.C. Sproul saying, “When people tell me that they don’t believe in predestination I’m going to grab them by the throat and say, ‘Why not! The Bible TEACHES IT!’“]
-Glory (v. 12, 14)
-Spiritual inheritance (v. 11, 14)
-Adoption (v. 5)
-Gospel (v. 13)
-Redemption, forgiveness (v. 7)
-Salvation (v. 13)
-Sin (v. 7)
-Trinity (whole passage)

In an interview in Modern Reformation, Willimon said, “In Christianity, you’ve got to sit and learn the language-just like you can’t learn French by reading Madame Bovary in an English translation. You’ve got to sit and learn the vocabulary and the grammar…In a way Christianity is like learning a new language. If you’ve ever tried to learn French, you know that you’re not just learning different labels; you’re learning a different culture. You are moving through the words into a different world.”

Some other related snippets from the interview include:

“I feel that in reaching out to the culture, we fell in face down. We woke up one day and we weren’t really saying anything different from the message that people could get at any other segment of the culture; or as one of my friends said, we woke up one day and there was no difference between church and Rotary, and Rotary at least meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch.”

Speaking of the trend in evangelicalism to “translate” Christian truths into more palatable teachings that people can more easily understand:

“I’m not much on the translation mode. I think, as we sometimes say, something is ‘lost in translation.’ Well, that something may be absolutely crucial. When you say that you interview pastors and evangelicals and they say, ‘I translate into the mode,’ it’s fascinating to me. I think that is the old discredited liberal project of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that many of us mainliners realize takes you nowhere. It’s an incredible thinning out of the gospel. It is so disheartening to see evangelicals now jumping on that and buying it. We’re all liberals now.”

“No self-respecting college student would walk into a physics class where the professor says, ‘Now, about the second law of thermodynamics…’ and they say, ‘Wait a minute, translate that into the words I already know.’ The professor would say, ‘Hey kid. Write this down. It’s going to be on the exam. I’m going to define the second law of thermodynamics for you, and you’ll need to memorize it and it will change your life, once you know this.’ I miss that because now I’m around people who are not in that kind of educational mode; they don’t think they need to be converted to be Christians. Well, I’m just afraid that this is such a counter way of living in reality. You have to be born again. You’re going to have to get a whole bunch of words that will eventually make you a different human being from who you were before you met Jesus.”


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