Jesus Talkin' - Titles

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What if genuinely pious folks use language about God and the Bible in ways other than what we theologians think they do? Surveys ask people, “do you believe the Bible is to be taken literally?” Very often the answer is “yes.” But what is the alternative? To say “no” would seem to be disrespectful to the high value we place on scripture. What if instead the question was “do you think the Bible should be taken seriously?” To go even further, why not ask which descriptor better fits: “literally” or “seriously?” For that matter, how often do you hear people say things like “I literally [fill-in-the-blank],” when you know the word “literally” is used metaphorically?

In church we sing songs that typically assign the best and highest adjectives to God. “Our God is an AWESOME God, He reigns from…” Would this not train people to use words like “omnipotent,” “unchanging,” “inerrant,” etc? It is not as if there isn’t precedent for using language that way. The Roman Emperors used some pretty lofty titles for themselves that were then used by Christians to describe Jesus in conscious opposition to Roman Imperialism.

As someone with formal education in theology, I know a ton of problems caused by corollaries of omnipotence as related to the subject of theodicy. Thus I understandably shy away from its use. Sometimes this annoys people I know who are not theologians.

Sure Biblical inerrancy, in the minds of those untrained in Biblical exegesis, can often lead to the tacit assumption that one’s own interpretations are inerrant. That God is said to be unchanging often ignores the reality that our understanding of God has changed a lot over time. I don’t think about God the way I did as a child anymore. I suspect many others would share that experience of having grown in our understanding of who God is. Thus “unchanging” seems more like a nice thing to say about God than a reflection of our lived experience. I do recognize that it is often legitimately used to emphasize God’s consistent love and faithfulness for us.

What if people use language about God as an outgrowth of their worship, rather than as the result of serious theological ruminations? Would most people even have a frame of reference to use the word “omnipotence” in line with John Calvin’s thought? If what people practice on a weekly basis is using grandiose words of praise directed toward God, should it be any surprise that they are reluctant to embrace any talk about God that isn’t correspondingly grandiose?

Church services, with so much praise of God, and celebration of the miracles in the Bible, is it any wonder that some people have a hard time avoiding language that may be problematic in some circumstances? How often do you hear about people praying for something other than healing for those who are sick or injured? A line I often use when talking about the subject of prayer is that “if human beings are mortal, and all you ever pray for is healing, then sooner or later it isn’t going to work.”

Should we then avoid language that may be something of an exaggeration in our worship services? I’m not sure that would be appropriate, but evaluating the theology contained in the songs we sing is a good idea for many reasons. There is a time for praise, there is a time for lament, and there is a time for careful theological discussion. It may be wise to consider the context in which people use language about God. The same words may mean different things in different contexts and to different people.

If all of this is true, how can it influence the way we talk about God with others?


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

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