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May 14, 2008

Mean what you say and say what you mean

by quaesitor

I had a physics teacher at school who always used to say that. I remember finding it infuriating and pedantic at the time. But I since realise that I’ve become rather infuriating and pedantic myself. He must be chuckling (my old physics teacher that is). But words matter – and they reveal far more than merely momentary thoughts. As does tone of voice. Together, they can unwittingly expose one’s entire worldview… as stunningly captured by this guy – a genius by the name of Taylor Mali (HT to Gavin McGrath for posting the clip first).

Like all the best humour, it’s true!

But in a weird convergence today (spooky, huh?), I went from watching that brilliant parody of the verbal tics of the inarticulate, to reading this totally reasonable rant against the impenetrability of the articulate (thanks to the African theological educators’ journal, Mwalimu, edited by Keith Ferdinando of AIM). Both extremes completely fail to communicate (either by trying to be too cool or too clever by half). It is taken from a review of the theological tomes of Wolfhart Pannenberg by Donald Macleod (who is himself no mean theologian). What he thinks of the man’s theology is not at stake here; instead, let it speak for itself:

Pannenberg is heavy-going. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that he glories in it. This raises four specific questions:

  • First, is it not the responsibility of theologians to be elucidatory and expository? If so, then they should be more lucid and accessible than what they are trying to expound. Otherwise they are useless. What is the point of our Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture if our expositions of it are impenetrable?
  • Secondly, is it not the duty of the theologian, as of any other author, to be interesting? If not, why should we expect people to read us?
  • Thirdly, is it not the duty of Christian theology to be ministerial: and in being ministerial to serve not merely one’s fellow academics but the whole Christian community? It is hard to see how such work as Pannenberg’s falls within the perspective of equipping the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:12).
  • Finally, is the theologian the one Christian functionary who is not bound by Jesus’ example? He was the teacher par excellence. Sometimes, beyond a doubt, he uttered hard sayings. More often, his utterances aimed to tease the imagination and to fill the mind with ideas which no propositions could exhaust. But always, the concern was with people, with life and with practical wisdom.

It is a curious irony that modern theology, so critical of scholasticism, now finds itself prisoner of its own schools.

Donald Macleod, The Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Themelios 25.2 (Feb 2000), 40-41

It seems to me that many of us have much to learn. Is it too much to ask:

  • for more academics (in all fields) to heed Donald Macleod?
  • for more ‘trip and hendy’ preachers to take note of Taylor Mali?

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