Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Can I swap my pliers for your economic Trinity?

A charge often levelled against theology is that of inaccessibility. I heard it again a few weeks ago. Why do theologians use incomprehensible words and talk in ways that none can understand?

I’ve been pondering this and have now decided that fair is fair.

That from now one, when someone accuses theologians of incomprehensibility, I will ask if I can borrow from them a silver metal thing, shaped like scissors, that snaps shut and has plastic handles.

14 words.
14 words that can still mean at least a number of tools.

When one word – pliers – would do.

Yes, theologians use short hand, words like economic Trinity.

2 words.
2 words that summarise 46 words: “the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation, history, salvation, the formation of the Church, the daily lives of believers, etc. and describes how the Trinity operates within history in terms of the roles or functions performed by each Person of the Trinity.” (From Wikipedia).

I’m being smart. My point is simply this. Don’t we all use code words as short hand, as a way of speeding up conversation? Petrol heads have distributors, sheet metal workers have pliers. So can theologians have their economic Trinity?

Posted by steve at 04:42 PM


  1. As a scientist I am totally with you on the value of jargon. It can be a pain to learn, but once you have it down you have a whole new way of communicating that is much more precise and satisfying and useful than before. My only problem is when theologians keep it to themselves. Don’t under-estimate your audience by dumbing it down, but also don’t just throw those words around like everyone knows what they mean. Explain the meaning, and then everyone will have access to the idea behind the word. It’s only when jargon becomes impenetrable or a way of separating those in the know from the huddled masses that it’s a problem.

    Comment by Orual — July 27, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

  2. thanks, this is a helpful insight. it makes me wonder if there is 2 types of context. one in which those gathered know shorthand and are allowed to use it freely. another in which the theologian/petrolhead/sheetmetal worker takes time to explain their terms. and not with an air of condescension,


    Comment by steve — July 28, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  3. I definitely agree with you there. Actually there might be three contexts.

    1) Specialists/theologians talking to each other, where it would be silly NOT to use those terms if everyone there understands them

    2) A specialist talking casually to a lay person, where it might be best to avoid the term at all because they are not particularly interested in learning in depth about the topic and use of jargon just makes the speaker seem like they are showing off.

    3) A teaching context with a specialist speaking to a lay person or people with the expectation of passing on knowledge, such as in a sermon, a class, or job training.

    Comment by Orual — July 28, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  4. There are also different uses, as well as different contexts of use. As when cognoscenti* use the complex terms BECAUSE they are a shorthand or more precise, or when they use them to show that they are the posessors of arcane** knowledge. Theological students are especially prone to the second usage. I find a good rule of thumb is to avoid the complex terms unless you need them, then explain them.

    * Foreign term for people “in the know” used because I wanted an unusual term about then.
    ** Term used to describe secret knowledge held as secret by some sect or “order”, used here just to twist the tails of theologians who on the whole look down on the fools who belong to such secret societies and sects.


    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — July 29, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

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