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The poverty of theological vocabulary results from the fact that most theologians are not full-fledged citizens of what Wordsworth called “the mighty world of eye and ear.” They do not speak a “language of the sense.” Theological vocabulary is the vocabulary of conception not perception.

Take from your shelf any commentary, introduction, history or systematic theology and look for words with some tactile, olfactory, visual, sonorous or saporous quality. They just aren’t there. Theological vocabulary does not include honeysuckle, orange, shady, giggle, juicy, willow, brine, mud, clover, concrete, feathery, pudding, chimney and the like.

Someone may suggest that theological language is poor for not using “the language of the sense” only insofar as a steam engine is poor for not using gasoline. Indeed, perhaps the language of the sense is for poets, and the other kind of language is for theologians. Personally, I am not ready to concede that theology must be done in the desert while poetry roams through forests, mountains and meadows.

Waking Up to our Mighty World

But even if theological vocabulary must remain poor, the point I want to make is this: “The mighty world of the eye and ear” is always there for us. It is very sad when anyone passes through life oblivious to the joys this world can quicken—like that joyful motion in your chest when from atop Mount Wilson you can see the sun boil its way into the Pacific; or like the quiet gladness of rising before the sun and smog to join the happy birds in welcoming the day.

There is an intimate relationship, however, between our power to enjoy a sensuous experience and our capacity to describe it with words. In “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth is not taken up nearly so much with the joy of revisiting the banks of the Wye as he is with the pleasure this moment will bring him in the coming years “recollected in tranquility.”

To put it simply, without a full and rich language of the sense, we will lose the enduring quality of our sensuous joys, and, what’s worse, with the atrophy of our descriptive capacities the power of all our enjoyment languishes. When you cease to use the word “tree” in your vocabulary, you have probably ceased to look at trees.

The Value of Stretching

The relation this has to theological vocabulary is this: The fastest and easiest way to obliterate the language of the sense and the power of the senses is to read only poverty-stricken theology. If we in seminary do not stretch ourselves beyond the pages of our dogmatics we shall all be dead by graduation day. And that evening, diploma in hand, we may lament with Samuel Coleridge,

All this long eve so balmy and serene
Have I been gazing on the Western Sky
And its peculiar tint of yellow green
And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

The Poverty of Theological Vocabulary is from Desiring God written by John Piper. A friend sent it to me this week and I loved it so much I wanted to share it with you all in its entirety. 

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A Warning To My Readers

October 24, 2012

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Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

Wendell Berry

SPEAK

August 19, 2012 — 2 Comments

Verb, Adjective, Noun.

This is the order in which we speak of walking the fast dog, or eating the good meal, or painting the blue wall. This is our syntax, familiar, but not poetic and it is poetry that stills me this morning and coasts me by all day.

Noun, Adjective, Verb—this is the way David sing-songs his worship in Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

His precepts and laws are not millstones around my neck or burdens to slog through, but they revive my soul. They bring life to the ruminations of my mind, the emptiness of my own thoughts, and the deadness of earthly glory.

The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

He has done it before and He will do it again. He has brought us thus far and He will bring us all the way in. He has begun and He will finish. This is the testimony He bears and this makes everything else pale in comparison. It is simple, easy, and profoundly wise, what He has done.

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

He gives us a blueprint, a “this is the way, walk in it,” and a narrow path, and yet none of this steals my joy but brings me further into it. This map shows me how to lift up my head and rejoice in my heart.

The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;

His commandments, though I do not always understand them, why they feel constraining and at times unfair, why they do not fit my western perceptions of righteous, just, and at times emotional desires, they are pure. They are absolutely pure, undefiled, a gift, and this opens my eyes to see His glory.

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;

Like Isaiah, I see Him and I tremble because He is so great and I am so, so small. But my fear is clean, without the earth encrusted baggage I attach to my fear of the dark, of being alone, or not getting what I want. This fear is palmed up and free. His awe endures forever.

The rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

He can be trusted. He is righteous. Altogether righteous. Altogether true.

The kingdom is backwards sometimes and I have to remember that. The world says to love this way or earn this way or be this way or learn this way, and the Kingdom flips our syntax on its head: look this way, it says, look at your King this way and find the fullness of Joy there.

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The Peace of Wild Things

September 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

by Wendell Berry