Ecumenism and the Problem of Theological Language

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There is a language barrier in Christianity, and it has always existed.  An anthropologist, I am not, so I will not attempt to explicate all of the legitimate reasons cultural and language barriers exist.  However, all of those innnocuous reasons seem to reveal the insidious nature of division in the Church.  In my estimation, the theological language barrier exists in the Church, because exclusion exists in the Church.  Call it what you want, but when a Protestant refuses to allow a Catholic to explain their position in their own terms (…or a Catholic an Orthodox, or and Orthodox a Protestant, etc., et al), because the Protestant some how already knows the answer, then such interaction is no longer about mutual understanding, constructive criticism, or even healthy disagreement – it is about exclusion.  What place has exclusion in the body of Christ?  If there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no master or slave in the body of Christ, how can there be actual division? 

Which is an important point, I think.  If the Church is Christ’s, and he transforms us into a unified body, then there can be no actual division in the actual Church – it is a spiritual law.  So, our problem becomes even more exclusive in nature.  If there is division, it is either only perceived division or those groups that are divided are not the actual Church.  I suppose the larger issue then becomes clear, if Christ is Lord of the Church (read here, “if Christ is your Lord”), then it will conform to his image and his purpose; she is (gasp) predestined to it.  So, by allowing exclusion to take place through the vagueness that occurs in interdisciplinary theological discourse, we are flaunting our unwillingness to conform – we are resisting his Lordship.  Consequently, the Spiritual reality is that Christ’s Church is unified, but we seem to be slow on the uptake.

How, precisely, does this reduce to an issue with language?  Perhaps, an example will be useful.  In a sacramental sense, the Eucharist, Baptism, Marriage, et al are seen as conduits of grace in the lives of Christians.  Ask a Catholic to explain this, and she will most likely give you a rendition of the RC’s teaching that Christ’s work on the cross requires a response in faith from human beings, so that the efficacy of grace can be experienced.  Ask a Protestant to explain this, and he will most likely give you a rendition of the Protestant assertion that an attempt to participate in God’s work of grace actually removes its efficacy; and an attempt to do so constitutes a theological system by which humanity saves itself through empty rituals of righteousness.  If you ever want to be “that guy” at a party just bring this issue up, then sit back and enjoy the show.  Wherein lies the real issue?  Is it really a difference between soteriological systems?  Has one side so grossly misunderstood the clear message of the Gospel?  Has anyone on either side bothered to ask what the other means when they use the term “Grace”?  This is just one example, and it may be a poor one at that.

Are there other issues hindering the work of ecumenism?  Absolutely.  However, I have been left puzzling for the last several years whether any of those would be as prominent, if we would lay down our weapons and work toward a common vocabulary.  Let’s be honest, here – the Orthodox are not going to accept openly homosexual priests any time soon, the Catholics are not going to ordain women any time soon, the Protestants are not going to participate in the Sacraments any time soon.  However, how much closer would we be, if each acknowledged the legitimacy of the others’ Christian walk?  Are the various Christian sects even able to recognize the doctrinal orthodoxy inherent in the others, or has the vocabulary become too much of a barrier?  I recognize that this may only be loosley associated with exclusion as a concept, but language is the origin of behavior.  If I reject certain theological language as being heretical, I cannot disassociate that language from the person sitting in the pew.  If I do not prefer the language that they use to express their faith, then how will I be able to live out unity with their Christian witness?  If I think you teach heresy, by proxy, you are a heretic.  The logic is simple, but few are willing to openly acknowledge it.



  1. Loving your site for some time; and good article…

    I wonder if the language issue isn’t so much a cause as a symptom. Theologians have, of course, gone to great pains regarding wording and definitions. It’s easy enough to measure orthodoxy, for example, using various Creeds subscribed to (the Nicene Creed as a particular yardstick for instance). A theologian can further define himself (or herself, but we won’t get into that for the sake of simplicity) by simply saying “Calvinist” or “Arminian” and then specifying the flavor (I’m a Wesleyan Arminian, or whatever).

    From my limited and vastly-under-educated perspective, I wonder if it’s more of an orthoPRAXY issue for the majority of non-theologian Christians, and their impressions of the means of the extension of Grace. How many congregations have split over the simple yet delightfully complex issue of Communion, for example…

    How cursed are we to get so wrapped up in the practice of Religion that we forget about our relationships (with God and with each other) in our Faith? I think the more relevant question regarding non-theologians in this issue is: Can my religious practice be just as valid a means of experiencing Grace and deepening my relationship with God as your religious practice?

    As a “n00b” theologian I’m wondering if the reverse issue would be true for theologians: Does the importance of orthopraxy diminish with a focus on orthodoxy? As a neophyte I’m beginning to ask questions like, “The details of orthodoxy are fun and exciting, and they’re important to me, but is there a line crossed where it causes me to miss the point of the Message?”

    ‘Praxy and ‘Doxy are important, but where’s the line that, when crossed, we become as the often-verbally-flayed-by-Christ Pharisees of old? I wonder if the language barrier, and other walls of hinderance in Christ’s Body-the-Church, are a result of this blurry line…

    Have I missed the Point?


  2. Matt,

    Thanks for commenting. No, you have not missed the point.

    Can my religious practice be just as valid a means of experiencing Grace and deepening my relationship with God as your religious practice?

    This is, in fact, the issue. However, just as you alluded in your comment, we like to be able to label each other in order to categorize one another theologically – this is where the exclusion comes in. So, my point is that much of the theological categorizing can be reduced to inflexibility over theological jargon. The core beliefs are the same across the spectrum, or else any group in question would not even be recognized as Christian.


  3. If you substituted the name Ralph for God every time you presume to talk about God, and Zippy the Pinhead for Jesus, you might just begin to understand how culture bound and arbitrary all “theological” and “religious” language is.

    The real (self-referring) subject of all of the usual theological and religious language is “I”, the dreadfully sane fear-saturated normal person who creates/spins the web of words or tower of babel/babble.

    If you really want to discover what USA “culture” (in particular) is really all about go and have a good look at Beavis & Butthead Do America. American “culture” in a nutshell.


  4. What if I replaced the name of every person that trolls a blog like this with “Ding-Dang the Jerk Face,” would the anti-religious fearmongering of secularist fundamentalism make any more sense?


  5. John’s acid-spitting aside, it does bring up a point from a sociological perspective that religions and societies can often be viewed as models for and of each other. If not, it should be at least conceded that they have an often profound effect on each other’s shape.

    Unfortunately John took a right-angle deviation from the article about terminology and division in the “unified” church when he broached the subject of sociology, as fascinating as it is, and tried to turn it to his own misanthropic agenda.

    lol Shawn on your reply…


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