In Defense of Big Words: A Sesquipedalian Manifesto

The ground squirrel never knew what hit him. He had gone exploring in our Neon’s engine compartment and met his end in the serpentine belt when my wife started the car on her way to pick me up from work. She heard the belt go. My father-in-law very graciously picked me up from work, brought me by Advanced Auto for a new belt, and helped install it. This was a good thing because, when they passed out mechanical skills in heaven, I must have been in the library; my father-in-law, on the other hand, has done a lot of his own auto repair. Despite his mechanical prowess, we had a rough time getting that belt on, mostly because of my scanty tool supply (again, library book sales are favored by the appropriations committee). If you have never tried pushing back a tensioner lever with a stray, unidentified metal bar, don’t. I had visions of everything slipping and my impaling myself on some gizmo and joining the ground squirrel in bulge-eyed rigor mortis.

Now the job did get done but with a good deal of exertion that the right tools would have eliminated. Words are much the same way: having the right ones on hand can get the job done much more quickly and efficiently. Christianity deals in ideas that overturn the world. It would be an advantage to us to be able to explain them adequately. Whether you attended seminary or not, whether you are in the ministry or not, you should work to build your vocabulary (and, as a closely-related corollary, your conversancy in concepts and ideas). As a matter of fact, vocabulary building should be an ancillary ministry of the pulpit and the Sunday school classroom.

“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Prov. 14:4, ESV). Admittedly, building a working vocabulary takes time and energy, but foresight should see the net gain in the future. Imagine you want to build a cabin on a lake. Will it take time and effort to dig a well? Sure, but do you want to spend the next five decades traipsing back and forth to the lake for water? How about clearing the brush for a roadway? Lots of work, but it beats carrying the groceries three miles.

There is in some quarters a resistance to big words. Perhaps there is a fear of sounding pretentious. Using big words for big words’ sake is pretentious, like installing an elevator in a tree house. But we’re aiming for taller buildings. Perhaps there is a fear that the audience will resist putting in the effort to learn the new terms. And maybe they will resist, and maybe it will require a substantial effort to coax them to learn. But years later, after they’ve learned it, you’ll have saved substantial effort in communicating. We are destined to be like Christ, the wisdom of God. The least we can do is get started.

J. Gresham Machen answered a common objection to in-depth analysis of the Gospel (which, I would add, is going to involve some exacting vocabulary). He wrote,

Indeed, an objection may arise. Is not the Gospel a very simple thing, it may be asked, and will not its simplicity be obscured by too much scholarly research? The objection springs from a false view of what scholarship is; it springs from the notion that scholarship leads a man to be obscure. Exactly the reverse is the case. Ignorance is obscure, but scholarship brings order out of confusion, places things in their logical relations, and makes the message shine forth clear.[1]

I would add that, the more precise a term one uses, the clearer the thought becomes. Of course, the thought does not become clearer to someone who is not familiar with the term. You can either avoid the term, or teach him the term. Enough said.

There are so many words that we need to use to communicate big ideas quickly. Hyperbole, allegory, simile, metaphor, vehicle, tenor, symbol, type, epitome, metonymy, synecdoche. Subjective, objective. Taxonomy, paradigm, matrix, genre, semantic, syntactic, linguistic, lexical, etymology. Abstract, concrete. Possible, plausible, probable. Imply, infer, derive, comprise, compose, preclude, entail. Induction, deduction, syllogism, premise, fallacy, non sequitur, equivocation, validity, corollary, axiomatic, prima facie. Teleological, asymptotic, asymmetric, aesthetic, antithetical, juxtaposition. Formulate, crystallize, distil, elaborate, delineate, substantiate. Temper, mitigate, mediate.

I have left out strictly biblical-theological terms intentionally. With many of these terms above, it’s not that we don’t know what the words mean, but that we don’t use them often enough to be nimble with them and have them handy when we need them (so, “Just hold this beam steady while I hunt for the framing hammer”) or to use them in just the right way (so, “This screwdriver will work for a crowbar, won’t it?”).

To expand a congregations’ working vocabulary and their conversancy with concepts and ideas has many advantages. Envision them. A preacher could fearlessly use these words, knowing that he will be understood. Sunday school class members could get to the point faster with questions and comments. More books could be accessible to the congregation. The congregation could think more precisely, more orderly, and so could commend and defend the faith better. Not to mention that vivid speech makes a deeper and more lasting impression on us. Whether or not Christians ever use these words with the “man on the street,” having these words in their own minds will simply help them to think faster, in a kind of mental shorthand, a kind of zip file. All of this builds upon itself. The U.S. Interstate system was built with construction equipment, which was built in factories with machines that were put together with tools … all the way back to the most primitive wheels, pulleys, and levers. After much time and hard work invested, drivers can now theoretically drive from Los Angeles to Boston without stopping. While such a project would have been dauntingly inconceivable to the colonist with a shovel and pick, it’s a fact taken for granted by children today.

Let me offer two concrete examples of the advantages of having one’s verbal tools near at hand. An atheist is calling Christianity irrational and atheism rational. A Christian challenges him to define rationality. The atheist responds that rationality is a perpetual questioning, a constant testing of hypotheses. If the Christian is versed in the terms and ideas of the debate, he can penetrate the fog and identify the problem: the atheist has described a process and not an end. The atheist has not said anything about correspondence to reality. The atheist’s boast to rationality is no longer a boast in an attainment; quite the contrary, it’s a boast in never attaining. None of the words the Christian uses are particularly long, but they do the trick with less mess.

Another example came about in a personal experience in an unusual way. In my studying through a collection of essays on postmodernism, I came across some very helpful observations by Richard Rorty that worked their way into a witnessing opportunity I had with a liberal ELCA lady. Rorty was describing what he calls a “final vocabulary”:

All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person’s ‘final vocabulary’. …

A small part of final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as ‘trust,’ ‘good,’ ‘right,’ and ‘beautiful.’ The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, ‘Christ, ‘England,’ ‘professional standards,’ ‘decency,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘the Revolution,’ ‘the Church,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘rigorous,’ ‘creative.’ The more parochial terms do most of the work.[2]

Rorty’s description provoked me to think about the way Christianity firms up those more pliable terms in contrast to ways other religions would firm them up. This train of thought was fairly recent in my memory when I met the ELCA lady, who stumped long and hard in favor of an ethic of “love,” love unencumbered by pedantic moralities. I would venture to call it providential that I had read Rorty so soon before, and was able first to attack the inadequacy of such a flexible term (“love”), particularly inadequate in a postmodern world in which we discover every day how variable the term “love” can be, and second to argue the inevitability of using more morality-specific words to define “love,” and third, to argue the necessity of patterning our “love” after God’s law. Having read Rorty helped me realize that the debate needed to be turned away from love versus non-love (in her mind), and needed to be brought down to the “parochial terms” that were doing the real work. And so the debate revealed itself to be one of “unconditional acceptance” versus “delight in the wellbeing of another, wellbeing being described in terms of God’s law.”

Would I have been able to minister to this lady without Rorty in the back of my mind? Sure. Would I have gotten to the point so quickly? I don’t think so. Observe again that I’m not arguing for merely “big words,” but for getting acquainted with the ideas that the big words represent, and holding those ideas in place with the best words possible.

The practical suggestions I have are not extravagant. First, all of us should obey our teachers and look up unfamiliar words when we’re reading. Second, churches with space for sermon notes (or that use Sunday school notes) in the bulletin could include a section for new vocabulary that might be used in the sermon or lesson, either with definitions already printed or for the congregation or class to fill in when the speaker explains the term. Third, we should be deliberate about our church libraries. Let’s try to stock them with books to supplement the sermons and recommend them to our congregation. It’s a common joy in human life to share a favorite book with someone else; it’s great when congregations have read the same books, because when they begin their discussions and fellowship, they’ll be–almost literally–on the same page.

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“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?” “So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.” —Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

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1 J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State, (Hobbs, New Mexico, The Trinity Foundation, 1995), 20.
2 Richard Rorty, “Ironists and Metaphysicians,” in The Truth About the Truth: De-Confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), 100–1. Reprinted from Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.

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