Poor Prose Is Poor Theology

Article by   October 2015
As a writing instructor, I do my best to resist the urge to gripe about poor prose, but I'm especially irked by turbid theology in print--and even more so when a top publishing company has seen fit to endorse it. I bring it up because it underscores a very important theological truth that can go unnoticed. Theology, more than any other profession, simply demands good writing--not because the content is the most important (which it is), but because theologians should be fully conscious that they are stewards of a medium rooted in the very Trinitarian God whom they seek to proclaim. In light of this, hazy and disheveled prose is not simply poor prose; it's poor theology. Allow me to explain.

The heart of language beats with the blood of the Trinity. "There is--and has been from all eternity--talk, sharing and communication in the innermost life of God."[1]  As distinct persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit commune and coinhere in unending reciprocity of life, love, and light.[2] God is, in short, a speaking God, a self-communing being. But he not only speaks with himself in the eternal tongue of love and glory; he also speaks to us, in such a way that all people cannot help but be affected by his words. God tells us through the pen of Isaiah (55:10-11),

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Our words are not so poetically effective as the rain and snow. But they do image those of the triune "Lord of language."[3]  Our speech "images the meaning, control, and presence of God's speech."[4] And because writing is, among other things, speech in print, we are called to write lucid, meaningful prose that confirms our creaturely control over language and reflects our unique personhood. When people read our words, they are not simply extracting denotations and matching symbols to referents. Much more than that--they are communing via the medium of print with a person who meaningfully, effectively, and presently offers himself on the page. At least, that should be our goal. 

But we seem to have perennial problems with this. Every generation, in its own way, fails to represent the Trinity in the manner (not just the matter) of its communication. And that is where theology comes to the fore. Cornelius Van Til--not the best writer, as those familiar with his work are well aware--wrote, "All of man's acts must be representational of the acts of God."[5] What he meant was that we must seek in all that we do to represent what we know about the Trinity. We know from Isaiah that God's words are right as rain: every one of them falls where it should, when it should, how it should within the context of human history. Now, if our communication is meant to image that of the Trinity on a finite scale--conveying meaning, compliant control (for we submit to Christ), and personal presence--then when we fail to do this, we misrepresent the Trinity to the world around us. Nebulous expressions and prose in disarray are not simply academic or technical problems; they are theological. They are problems of trinitarian representation. Rather than reflecting the meaning, control, and presence of God's clear and accessible speech, we often reflect the ambiguity, impotence, and absence of fallen creatures in a fallen world. 

Some examples, I'm afraid, are needed to illustrate this. However, before offering these examples, let me be the first to say that I am guilty of the same crimes I accuse others of committing. None of us has the consistency to live up to our own standards--and writers are the worst of all. No sooner do we scold an academic for ambiguous claims than we turn the corner and scribble ambiguous critiques of his argument. We all do it, so this is a self-directed diatribe.

In fact, though I will not reveal the name of the author I cite here, I reference him not because he is a poor theologian, but because he sometimes has much to offer. I do not agree with everything he says, but I have found some of his thoughts quite helpful. So, this is no covert tirade against my theological enemies. It is, in the spirit of Augustine, a slap on the wrist of those whom I hope would do the same for me.  
Having said that, I could not help but wince when I read this:
For the great Patriarch of Alexandria the Gospel of salvation as handed down from the apostles and expressed in the Nicene Confession depended entirely on the ontological connection between the saving life and activity of the incarnate Son of God and God the Father, which in turn revealed and imported no less crucial ontological connection between the Holy Spirit and both the Son and the Father.
Or, if there weren't enough modifiers divorcing the subjects from the verbs, how about this one:
This teaching corresponds to the way in which theologians like Epiphanius of Salamis with considerable stress on the homoousian as applying to the inner relations of the Trinity as a whole, spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three enhypostatic Persons eternally grounded and wholly coinhering in one another while remaining other than one another, without there being any deviation in the Trinity from complete oneness and identity.
Sure, you can pull the meaning out of these sentences if you work at them, cutting and pasting prepositional phrases and participial clauses here and there. But it's like trying to cut a field of hay with a reel mower: once you've finished, you can't help but wonder why you spent so much time doing something that obviously could've taken less. But time is not the issue here; it's something far more serious. The lucid teaching of Scripture is substituted by turbid turns of phrase. Meaning, control, and presence are exchanged for abstraction, disheveled sentence structure, and a lack of reader-awareness. Consider a rewrite of the second example. 
This teaching corresponds to the way in which theologians like Epiphanius of Salamis spoke of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Epiphanius and the like did so by laying considerable stress on the homoousian as applying to the inner relations of the Trinity. The three enhypostatic Persons, as these inner relations, eternally ground and wholly coinhere in one another while remaining distinct. Thus, the unity and identity of the Trinity are both left intact. 
I've simply moved subjects closer to their verbs, replaced awkward word choice, and broken sentences where it seemed necessary to give the reader's mind a breather. Why do these technical changes seem to make such a difference? The short answer is, because I'm making a conscious effort to image the meaning, control, and presence of the Trinity in my language. Is the meaning clearer in the revision than it was in the original? Does the passage seem more effective in communicating that meaning? Do you feel as if I better understand how you will receive my message as a reader? If you can answer "yes" to these questions, then I am at least going in the right direction as a writer made in the image of the Trinity.

What is frustrating is that any editor could have suggested those changes. What bothers me is that no one did. The author, probably due to his status and reputation, was likely unchallenged. Or, what's worse, perhaps his phraseology was deemed "standard academia" by the press. Either way, the reader loses, and the trinitarian God is misrepresented. A theological gem is lost in a mire of bleary sentence structure. 

My point is that theologians are the last ones who should write this way. And, conversely, they should be the first ones to be judged for it--myself included. Jesus' own brother warned others not to rush into teaching, for "we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). Theologians are nothing more or less than teachers, and because many of them are pushed to publish, that makes the weight they bear that much heavier. For many theologians in our day and age, words do not dribble off of the tongue and evaporate in evanescent conversation. They do not merely echo from the walls of a parish, chapel, or church. They are engraved in a medium--either the worldwide searchable web or the printed page. There is no taking back written words. They stay.

Because words now remain in a web of communication (on the web and in print), their power is preserved, for better or worse. We can offer others the meaning we have found, the control we have been given to use words wisely, and our personal presence in the unique structures and patterns of our prose. But that means we can also offer ambiguity, impotence, and absence. Poor prose can actually be an anti-type of communication reflecting the Trinity. That is why poor prose is not just poor prose; it's poor theology.

Let us all be reminded and take to heart that what we say is just as telling as how we say it; that prose is not from a peasant's pantry: it has been given to us from the divine table of the Trinity. People eat God's words (Deut 8:3; Jer 15:16; John 4:32). Indeed, we are saved because we have eaten the Word (John 6:35)! Something strikingly similar happens with our words. Readers digest them, dwell on them, and are changed by them. The question is whether we are looking to the triune Lord of Language as we write. If not, then I have no doubts that we will not merely write poor prose; we will write poor theology, and readers will be no better for having read it.

Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, reside in Telford, PA


[1] Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology: Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in Light of the Church, vol. 1: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2008), 487.

[2] "God is in three Persons who communicate being (or life), goodness, and light (or knowledge) among Themselves. This makes God a Trinity of Persons united in the greatest possible love." Dumitru Stăniloae, The Holy Trinity: In the Beginning There Was Love, trans. Roland Clark (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2012), 14.

[3] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 34.

[4] Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, 30.

[5] Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, vol. 2, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 78.

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