Writing: Words

In Francis Bacon’s essay entitled “Of Studies” he gives the now well known dictum that “Reading makes a full man; Conference a ready man; and Writing an exact man.” The axiom is a good. Clear writing not only testifies to clear thinking, but precise writing creates precise thinking. I’ve found this to be especially true in my own life as I prepare to preach Sunday after Sunday. Actually writing out my sermon in a manuscript (whether I use it or not), helps my thinking, and thus my preaching, become more precise and more logically consistent. And so often in this practice of writing, what makes any given sermon better is that I’ve had the time to wrestle over words. So perhaps we could augment Bacon’s dictum to say that “writing with exact words makes an exact sermon.”

We shouldn’t have to argue that in the practice of theology our writing and words should be exact. Perhaps one might call us precisionists, or even philological puritans, but the truth remains: words matter. Our pure and precise God has revealed Himself in pure and precise words and so our writing and the words we use ought to be so as well.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in “Studies in Words”, “there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings of words since its date - if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds - then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended.”[1]

His point is clear. Not only do words matter, but we must have a grasp of what words mean and, to a greater extent, what those same words have meant over time. As Lewis argues, “what we get when we read that poem may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not the poem the original author intended.” Now change out the word poem in the above quote and exchange it with theology. There are people who want a study of theology wholly free from... the love and knowledge of words. What’s the result? They are resolving on a lifetime of guarded delusion.

Consider the valuable lesson surrounding the idea of atonement, specifically through the word “propitiation.” This precise word is only used three times in the English New Testament (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; and 1 John 4:10), but over time, and especially in our modern era, the word has been understood to mean something different than what it was originally intended to communicate.

The Greek word hilasterion communicated an appeasement of wrath, an act by which God’s good and just hate toward a sinner (Psalm 5:5; Psalm 11:5; Malachi 4:1-3, Romans 9:13) was satiated.[2] The latin word propitari meant to rend favorable, thus propitiation has as its object the person of God. God is propitiated.[3]

But in more modern liberal thought, and through the teaching of men like C.H. Dodd, Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner, the idea has come to mean an expiation of sin, so that the object of the word has changed from God to sin. Hilasterion is thus translated as expiation (in the RSV, NRSV, and NEB) or even as a sacrifice of atonement (as in the NIV).[4] Thus, what happens in Christ’s death is not that God’s anger is propitiated, but only that our sins are expiated; the guilt of our sin is taken away, and that’s it.

But J.I. Packer is right when he says that in such a change in meaning we no longer see in God “such a thing as anger occasioned by human sin, and consequently no need or possibility of propitiation.”[5] The change in meaning from propitiation to expiation has, in essence, expiated any notion of a wrathful God. So that when some theological writers talk about atonement, completely absent in their meaning is any idea of a just and wrathful God being reconciled with heretofore condemned sinners.[6] Or in the wise words of the warrior-theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”

As image bearers all humanity reflects our communicating Creator. As this week’s guest on Theology On The Go, Pierce Taylor Hibbs, has wonderfully argued, “language is central to the Trinity ad intra and ad extra. God is speaker, speech, and breath, as well as distinct persons in linguistic communion with one another. Both of these elements are reflected in human language analogically.”[7]  But as Christians, men and women recreated into the image of Christ the incarnate Word, how much more do our words matter! When we think, write, and speak, we are doing so as ambassadors of a God who likewise communicates, a God who does not waste words nor plays fast and loose with the meanings of words.

If “writing makes an exact man”, then for Christians this is doubly so. Indeed, may we labor well over the exact words in order to communicate a more exact Gospel as we reflect and give honor to our exact God.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Studies In Words, (Cambridge University Press, 1967), 3.

[2] We of course fully affirm the mystery that in God’s simplicity he also fully loves the sinner, so much so that he gave His only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

[3] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, (Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 554.

[4] [4] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, (Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 555.

[5] J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement,  (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2007), 33.

[6] See John 3:36. God’s wrath is now targeted at and remains on all who have not yet turned to Jesus Christ.

[7] Pierce Taylor Hibbs, “Language and Trinity” in Redeeming The Life Of The Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, edited by John M.Frame, Wayne Grudem, John J. Hughes, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2017), 192.


Stephen Unthank