Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pet Peeve Words

This brief post will be on a series of words used in theological and philosophical discussions that I think should be banished, or only used with great care. I will list the word, and then why I think it’s time for it to go. Let me know if you’d like to add any more words, and why, below in the comments!

1.     Clearly/Obviously

Example: “The Bible clearly teaches that God is in time,” or “It is obviously the case that God causes humans to will what they do.”

Why it’s a problem: If the issue is controversial, then chances are it’s not so obvious or clear. In fact, this is usually done with one of the most controversial premises in the entire discussion with the effect of overstating the case. After all, since this is so clear and obvious, why can’t you see it, debate opponent? Perhaps it’s because you’re unintelligent, or you don’t care to see it, or you’re not Spirit-led! There are definitely some things that are clear and obvious in life, and in the Scriptures, but if there’s a genuine disagreement, then it’s probably not so obvious. This can also be used to cover for a lack of in-depth knowledge about a subject. That is, when someone doesn’t really have a whole lot to say to a counter-assertion, coming back with “Well, it’s just…obvious!” is a good way to cover. Again, sometimes it really is just obvious. But look at it this way: if you want your discussion partner to believe you, then you should provide a reason.

2.     Sovereign

Example: “God is sovereign, and so no human will can ever overcome his!”

Why it’s a problem: OK, so I’m being a little dramatic in saying this term should “go.” Rather, this is where I think this term should also be used with great care. I’ve found that, typically, people have trouble articulating exactly what they think “sovereignty” means, and even more trouble with arguing for what it entails. Some use it to mean something like “God’s absolute right to rule the universe and everything therein,” while others seem to take it to be synonymous with “providence,” while others take it to mean causal determinism. Too often, it’s just a loaded theological term imposed on a text rather than drawn out from it (bonus points if “obviously” or “clearly” is used once the theological import has been done). If we aren’t careful to tell each other what we mean by our terms, we run the very real risk of talking past one another.

3.     Autonomous

Example: “Man’s attempts at proofs for God’s existence are examples of autonomous reasoning that gets him to a pagan god only.”

Why it should go: “Autonomous” means a law unto oneself, and thus the idea is that doing whatever it is autonomously is attempting to do something away from the authority or rule of God, and is ipso facto sinful. It’s basically an attempt to win inter-Christian debates by definition. After all, if even engaging in whatever discussion on whatever side you’re on is sinful, then you have no choice but to be in agreement with your discussion partner, right? Virtually nothing makes my eyes roll faster. The fact of the matter is that our rational faculties are not a result of the Fall. They have been impacted, sure, but one cannot extrapolate to a general skepticism about theological knowledge. I think, in order to be charitable, I should point out that usually people who say this are careful to preserve the Scriptures as our final rule of faith and practice. That is, if we have an idea, and we search the Scriptures, and we’re really sure the Scriptures are incompatible with the idea, then it’s the idea that should go. This process becomes very, very tricky, since none of us can come to the text without presuppositions, background knowledge, etc. Because of this difficulty, some people perceive an adversarial relationship between human reasoning processes and the text. Surely, we need the Bible as the final rule of faith and practice—but it is just not the only source of any knowledge about God, and taken literally is incoherent.[1] Anyway, people aren’t usually trying to live free of God and his law when trying to reason about him. It’s better that we all just engage in whatever discussion is being had about God, instead of judging the heart motives of the other person.

[1] The nature of Sola Scriptura works only if we assume that humans are able to bring reasoning to bear on the text, and import that as part of the definition. If we cannot even reason about the text in order to derive its direct meaning, then we are forced to have an infallible interpreter, which none of us are, whom the Spirit acts on in revealing it specially to them. Since Protestants reject this, either Sola Scriptura is false or else it carries the idea of human reasoning with it. It’s also worth noting that God revealed himself in his act of creation prior to the Word of God, and also revealed himself specially to his creatures. Without God’s revelation, we would know nothing of him, but he has revealed himself!


  1. People use "that begs the question" to mean, " that raises the question." But the phrase is actually referring to an accusation of circular reasoning. I hear the phrase used incorrectly all the time.

    1. Ha! True. I am so used to reading it used correctly now, however, that my ears perk up when I hear "that begs the question," because I instantly assume that I will be told how the conclusion is the only or main reason behind affirming a premise only to be disappointed when I realize we've only raised a new question. :) Good catch!

  2. It gets on my nerves when people use the term 'biblicist' because it tends to connote the idea of philosophy-free theology.

  3. Oh, and let us not forget the word 'heresy'!


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