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Monday, July 09, 2007

church language and Bible translation

I wrote this essay a number of years ago. It deals with the issue of religious language, a dialect (jargon) of language which develops to deal with sacred matters, including church. While this topic is broader than the issue of vocabulary found in Bible translations, there is a clear relationship between the two kinds of vocabulary. For it is true that when we become comfortable with a specialized dialect of a language for matters pertaining to our religious beliefs and practices, it is also likely that we will feel that same sense of comfort if the Bible that we use contains that same language. But if we wish to reach a wider audience with the good news that God wants us to hear, then we need to be willing to look at the uniqueness of our own church language, or jargon. We need periodically to ask if our church dialect disenfranchises those who do not understand or speak our specialized religious language.

A good book on this topic is God Talk: The Triteness & Truth in Christian Clichés, by Randall J. VanderMey, InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Some webpages dealing with church language are:

A book promoting use of plain English is:

Plain English at Work : A Guide to Writing and Speaking, by Edward P., Jr. Bailey, and Larry Bailey

Understanding the advantages of using plain English has implications for the use (actually, dis-use) of church language.

I am a linguist. I naturally observe the way people speak. I enjoy watching how we use language to "do" things in life. I have been in church circles all my life. Many unchurched people are not familiar with our religious terms. They do not communicate well, if at all, to those who are not part of our own church groups. Some of our church language comes directly from the Bible, especially the KJV which has had such a strong influence on vocabulary within the English-speaking world for the past 450 and more years. There is nothing wrong with any of these terms. They are special to us who use them. But many of them are not naturally a part of the language of the wider population and we need to be sensitive to how well we communicate to that larger world when we speak. Here are some of the terms Christians use which are part of their religious dialect. I have organized the terms in four categories:

  • Commonly used: used in varying degrees today by a large percentage of Christians
  • Obsolescing: decreasing usage among the total Christian population
  • Subdialect vocabulary: commonly used among various subgroups of the total Christian population
  • Technical vocabulary: technical terms used by a fair number of lay Christians as well as theologians
Commonly used

abide
abundant
abundant mercies
accept Jesus
accept the Lord
ask Jesus into your heart
Amen!
atonement
atoning blood
authority
believe
believe in the Lord
believer
Bible-believing
bless
bless the food
blessed
blessing
blessings
blood of Christ
blood of Jesus
Body of Christ
born again
bountiful
burden
carnal
child of God
claim the blood
come into my heart
confess
confession
conformed
covered by the blood
crusade
decision
eternal
evangelical
evangelism
evangelistic
everlasting
exhortation
faith
fear of the Lord
feeding on the Word
fellowship
filled with the Spirit
for Thy sake
glorify
glorious
glory
gone to be with the Lord
grace
gracious
the Gospel
grace
growing in the Lord
hallelujah
head of the home
headship
heart
house of God
in Christ
in Jesus' name
in the Lord
in the Word
intercede
Jesus saves
joy of the Lord
led by the Spirit
journeying mercies
joy of the Lord
know the Lord
lift Jesus up
literal
living for the Lord
living in sin
look to God in prayer
love in the Lord
the lost
lost in sin
the Lord's day
majesty
mercy
mighty
moment of prayer
outpouring
outreach
righteousness
paraphrase
peace
perfect peace
plead
plead the blood
power
Praise the Lord!
pray to receive Christ
precious
profession
profession of faith
put it in the Lord's hands
the Rapture
received Christ
redeem
redemption
repent
revival
riches
saint
saved
the Savior
say grace
the Second Coming
separate
separated
separation
share
share the Word
sinners
soul
soul-winning
spirit
spiritual blessings
spiritual feast
spiritual food
spiritual fruit
spiritual growth
submission
submit
supreme
surrender
testify
testimony
the throne of grace
triumphant
under conviction
undertake for
unrepentant
unsaved
walking with the Lord
winning the lost
witness
the world
the Word
word of exhortation
Word of God
word of prayer
yield

Obsolescing


admonition
atonement
backslide
boundless
flesh
fornication
immortal
justified
sanctified
perish
predestined
repentance
reprobate
reverence
reverent
unceasing
unregenerate

Subdialect vocabulary

covenant
Covenanters
the Fathers
the filling
fundamental
the gifts
the indwelling
kingdom
kingdom work
lift our hands
lifting holy hands
liturgy
Messiah
mighty visitation
the Our Father
paper pope
prayer language
pray through
psalter
sacred tradition
second blessing
slain
slain in the Spirit
strangely moved
strangely warmed
visitation
word of prophecy

Technical vocabulary, including theological terms

amillenial
bibliolatry
Anabaptist
Arminianism
Arminian
Calvinism
Calvinist
complementarianism
complementarian
consubstantiation
dispensational
ecumenical
eisogesis
egalitarianism
egalitarian
elect
eschatology
evangelicalism
exegesis
fundamentalist
hermeneutics
immersion
immersionist
incarnate
inerrancy
inerrantist
interconfessional
justification
literalist
omnipotent
omnipresent
omniscient
ordinance
orthodox
orthodoxy
paedobaptists
postmillenial
predestination
premillenial
propitiation
reformed
sacrament
sacramentalism
sanctification
subordinationism
substitutionary atonement
synoptic
transubstantiation
Trinity
Wesleyan

What are other words you can think of, especially ones found in English Bibles, which do not communicate well to most English speakers?

4 Comments:

At Tue Jul 10, 05:32:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Expiation?

I am on my way out all day, but will comment on some items on the list later.

Rich

 
At Tue Jul 10, 06:18:00 PM, Blogger Aslan_kin said...

What about titles such as brother (archaic plural brethren), sister, minister (not to be confused with a Minister of Parlaiment), pastor, priest? Or how about the title "Lord" or "LORD" for God? While British English bloggers/readers may be familiar with the term as an official title, it is not commonly used as such in the U.S., as far as I know. Maybe "Sir" would be more culturally appropriate title for Americans to use, except for the fact that "Lord" is such a part of church tradition.

 
At Tue Jul 10, 06:49:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

It is interesting that if you get a bunch of electrical engineers in a room, you might not be able to understand them either - or layers, or stock brokers.

Could it be, that the words we use, we need?

What would happen if layers dumbed down what they said, or if photographers couldn't use specialized terms?

There is a learning curve to everything new. And if there isn't - then it isn't new.

 
At Tue Jul 10, 09:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan commented:

It is interesting that if you get a bunch of electrical engineers in a room, you might not be able to understand them either - or layers, or stock brokers.

Could it be, that the words we use, we need?

What would happen if layers dumbed down what they said, or if photographers couldn't use specialized terms?


All good and important comments, Nathan. Thanks. Your words apply to every subset of any society that has its own specialized vocabulary (jargon, see the first link in my post).

There is nothing wrong with jargon. It helps communication be precise within a discipline. It helps for communication of theological ideas with the community of theologians.

The question in my post, however, is whether we should use jargon for Bible translations which are targeted to wider audiences. On this point I like to take my cue from Jesus who used vocabulary which his audiences already knew. He did not require his audiences to learn new words to understand his teachings. This was true even when he was speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well.

There is a place for speciality Bibles with church language. That place is for audiences who already use and understand that language.

There is also a place for Bible translations which are in the language of the people, just as Jesus spoke the language of the people.

I am *not* suggesting that there were no technical terms at all used in the original biblical languages. But they are far rarer than the number of church language terms which are used in many English Bible versions today.

I suggest that we should take our lessons from Jesus, the Master Teacher, for what kind of language to use when communicating to others around us.

 

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