Posted by: Billy Marsh | April 1, 2010

L’Engle on Language and Theology

So it is not that all the critics of the new translations are against change (though some are), but against shabby language, against settling for the mediocre and the flabbily permissive. Where language is weak, theology is weakened (40).

When I ran across this quote from Madeleine L’Engle’s classic little work on [Christian] art I found myself agreeing with her sentiments immediately. The twentieth century was filled with language theory as theologians and philosophers battled over whether or not you could say anything real, meaningful, or true about God, or even perhaps, about anything at all. But what did occur, and thankfully so, was that the role of language and linguistics as an key factor in biblical interpretation was brought to the fore just as it should be. This movement brought a renewed focus on the literary dimensions of the Bible which forced people to actually start handling the text of Scripture as opposed to outside sources in order to determine what God has meant in the inspired written Word of God (see for example Leland Ryken’s Words of Delight and How to Read the Bible as Literarture, and at a more advanced level check out Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in this Text?) . But with regards to the role of theology and language, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,  L’Engle is on to something profound which can surely be attested to throughout church history. For example, Early Church Fathers like Tertullian had to come up with new words or use words in reference to God that had not been previously part of tradition so that the core doctrines of the faith as taught in Scripture such as the Trinity or the Incarnation could be verbalized in substance and with precision.

I think, however, that we must not mistake simple vocabulary for a weak one. Obviously there is a simplicity to the gospel or to God that communicates their essence clearly while bearing with it the understood layers of the depth of  meaning. But what L’Engle is reacting to is when we choose to move in reverse. The quote below follows from her stance on a particular updated version of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (I’m not sure which revision of which she speaks). Apparently, the revised translation was an attempt to give a fresh version, but in the form of watered down terminology. And L’Engle is right to note that because language is the carrier of meaning, the theology which it imparts does not go unaffected by the “shabby language” in which it is mediated. To state it positively, robust language strengthens theology. This dynamic shows, as L’Engle demonstrates from The Book of Common Prayer, why choosing a good, reliable translation of the Bible is so important for the maturity of one’s faith. One that does justice to the original languages as well as communicates the truths of Scripture verbally that stands upon the development of doctrine in history where the Church has been laboring to put into human expression the divine. In other words, a Bible translation should make you challenge and stretch your vocabulary than the opposite. This would be one reason why I would never use something such as The Message as my primary Bible though it may have other benefits, which I could only imagine to be very few.

L’Engle makes a good point, and one that is extremely relevant to our world today where there is constant doubt in the reliability of language to bear absolute truth, especially divinely revealed truth. Moreover, our culture tends to view substantial theology and its “big words” as merely a product of the academy and its theologians who only experience the world from their high and lofty ivory towers; whereas, a healthier stance would be one where a vibrant and dense vocabulary (and I’d also add grammar and style) seeks to serve the church in helping to magnify God’s glory through aiding one another in how best to understand the inexhaustable God, rather than always trying to bring the things of heaven back down to earth, thereby weakening theology, and most likely, indirectly diminishing God’s glory.



  1. Theology’s weakened when it’s wordy, too.

  2. All the more reason why says simpleton needs to lead the way!

  3. I read a book by Madaleine L’Engle when I was a kid. Think it was something like “A Wrinkle in Time”. But to the point, I am enjoying the ESV because it does seem to me to elevate the text over the NIV which I used for 25 yrs. And there are still parts of the KJV that will always be superior.

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