Theological Gobbledygook (I)

By Cecil Willis

The apostolic example left by Paul as to the manner in which preaching (or writing) should be done is being disregarded by many today. Paul said that his preaching was “not in wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made void” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul wanted no one to be converted to his oratorical powers, or improperly influenced by any demonstration of worldly wisdom. Because of the simplicity and directness of his preaching and writings, Paul was disrespected by some who heard him. Some who opposed him sought to capitalize on his ineptness (as they considered it) in writing, and his lack of rhetoric in his preaching. In 2 Cor. 10:10, Paul refers to what his enemies were saying about him: “For, His letters, they say, are weighty and strong; but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account.” In response to these critics, Paul said: “But though I be rude in speech, yet am I not in knowledge. . .” (2 Cor. 11:6).

The simplicity of Paul’s preaching was not occasioned by his lack of formal education, or because of his inability to make minute intellectual discriminations. Though born in Tarsus, Paul evidently was sent to Jerusalem in order that he might sit at the feet of one of the great teachers of his day, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Scripture also indicates that Paul had enough ability and learning to enable him to advance “in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my countrymen. . .” (Gal. 1:14). He was a member of the strictest sect of the Jews; Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 26:5). We would say of Paul that he stood head and shoulders above other men of his own religion and time. Yet Paul admits that his preaching did not demonstrate or display his educational attainments. He told the Corinthians, “And my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom; but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4, 5). There were some who even considered the message that he brought to be mere “foolishness” (I Cor. 1:23). All these passages lead to the inexorable conclusion that Paul preached as simply as he did on purpose.

Contrasted With Modern Preachers

It seems that some preachers today put a premium on being able to write every sentence in such a complex way that it is capable of being misunderstood, and that in several different ways. Some brethren seem to think that ambiguity, evasiveness, equivocation, and complexity are traits much to be desired in a preacher or writer. At least such writers leave themselves a “loop-hole” through which they can extricate themselves from a difficult or an embarrassing situation, should anyone be so bold as to presume that he understood what this scholarly (?) author said, and should therefore take issue with what he preached or wrote. Whenever something is challenged which has been written by one of these who feign great learning, inevitably they cry out, “But you misunderstood what I said.” It already has been well said by others that those men who cannot write so that they can be understood, or who will not write so that they can be understood, would do the brotherhood a great favor if they wrote nothing at all for public consumption.

One brother told me about a year ago that he had received about 90 letters asking about the fellowship question. He interpreted these letters to mean that many brethren were interested in the superior information he could impart to them. My interpretation of his having received the 90 letters was the brethren wanted to know where he stood. The mere fact that so many inquiries regarding fellowship had come to him should have told him something about the fact that brethren who read his writings still did not know for sure where he stood. I suspect, if the complete truth were known, that one Alabama Associate Editor has gotten a lot more than 90 letters from brethren trying to find out where he stands on this fellowship question.

Strangely enough, so far as I now can remember, I have not gotten a single letter wanting` to know where I stand on whether we should fellowship the liberal institutional brethren,: or the “instrumentalists.” My interpretation of this fact has been that brethren could tell from what I have preached and written where I stand on this issue. If I were going to interpret my flow of mail as a St. Louis Associate Editor interpreted his 90 letters of inquiry, I would have to conclude that brethren just plain do not care to know where I stand. Preachers, as well as trumpets, should not give an “uncertain sound” (1 Cor. 14:8). Yet, a few years ago, some brethren in the Northeastern section of this country published a paper which they called An Uncertain Sound. They might better have named it An Unusual Sound, for it certainly had little resemblance to those sounds which reverberate from the Scriptures, and it bore little similarity to the papers published by men who were determined to write the truth, and to do that in such a manner that it could not be misunderstood.

The writings of some brethren (including those entitled Answers To Questions by Brother Edward Fudge) remind me of a little quip I read somewhere. One man is reported to have said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant!” Perhaps some of you scholarly brethren will unravel that for me, and tell me plainly what that fellow was saying. By accident, on one occasion I happened to overhear someone state what my Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test score was. It was not high enough that I want to tell you what my score was, but neither was it quite as low as some of my correspondents indicate they think it to be. I would like to think that I would fall somewhere in that general category called “Average.”

And yet I must confess that the writings of some men tell me nothing. At various times in my life, I have read a good bit of what Paul Tillich wrote. His writings always bugged me. I could read a sentence from Tillich, and could know the definition of every word used in that sentence, and yet did not grasp the faintest idea of what he was trying to say. And yet Tillich is considered to be profound. Perhaps he was, but if people cannot understand what he said, of what value is his profundity? Just last night I read the following sentence in a journal which I receive: It was five years before he was born and seven years after she died that the baby divorced his grandmother.” If anybody out there anywhere understands that sentence, please write and explain it to me! I haven’t the faintest idea as to what the writer intended for his readers to learn from that sentence.

Complete Terminology

Some seem deliberately to try to write so that they cannot be understood. Years ago, I heard someone quoted as saying, “For years I thought the book’ of Romans was the most difficult book I had ever read, until I read Brother Moses E. Lard’s commentary on the book of Romans. Now I think Brother Lard’s commentary is the most difficult book I have ever read.”

An instance of this deliberate usage of complexity is an article I also read last night. It was entitled “Paul, Participles and Parameters.” That sounds exciting already, doesn’t it? Like the writing some brethren do, this article sounds good, but it tells me nothing. The article purports to be an investigation of “one major literary characteristic which has not been studied to date, namely the Pauline use of the participle.” This ought to make some dandy sermon material for the aspiring intellectuals among us.

The co-authors of this exciting article stated that they were going to use “the statistical technique called discriminant analysis” in their study of Paul’s usage of the participle in his epistles. Now in case you are not familiar with the technique called “discriminant analysis,” here is the co-authors’ explanation of it:

“The first step in the discriminating process is to determine the relative importance of the participle types as discriminating agents. To accomplish this, a series of five multiple regression analyses were performed with each participle variable serving as the dependent variable in one of the analyses. In this manner, correlation coefficients were determined and could be used to determine the relative importance of the participle types. The multiple regression analyses suggested the attributive and circumstantial to be the most important discriminating agents of the five participle types listed by Van Elderen and hence were selected for use in the discriminant analysis. “

Now did everybody get that? Well, if you did not, I am sorry. Ne just cannot waste anymore valuable time and space explaining it further, and must proceed to more important natters, namely, to that which the “discriminate analysis” ells us about Paul’s epistles. You dullards who do not yet inderstand the procedure will have to study it further at ‘our own leisure.

Having read this which it took two highly educated men to Trite, I now know the frequency (in percentages) of Paul’s sage of the different kinds of participles (Attributive, Circumstantial, Supplementary, Independent, and Substantive) in eleven of the epistles which Paul wrote. Why the other two or three of his epistles were eliminated from this important study, I guess I will never know. What possible use one might ever have for this information, the authors did not explain. They do tell us, however, that “The overall statistical feature of the discriminant analysis is to attempt to maximize the variation between the different groups without noticeably increasing the variation within the group itself. This can best be accomplished by using methods of the calculus and maximizing the ratio of the Between-groups Mean Square to the With-groups of Mean Square. “Now the authors put a question mark (?) at the end of the last sentence, rather than a period. Perhaps that question mark (?) has some significance to the understanding of Paul’s epistles, but if it did, I did not detect it. But I feel confident that if it did, some of my erudite friends will fill my mail box with letters explaining it all to me.

But if you want to know more about Paul’s usage of the five different kinds of participles used in his epistles (Tutus, Philemon, and Hebrews unfortunately are omitted from this important study), the authors recommend that all the mathematical details and calculations for the application of the discriminant analysis to the data can be found in the IBM 1130 Scientific Subroutine Computer Software Package. No. GH 20-0252-4, published by the IBM Corporation. White Plains, New York. “Now every brother who intends to preach the gospel should have at least one copy of these materials in his library! You just never will be able to understand Paul’s writings without it!

After wading through all of this hog-wash, imagine my dismay when I came to the “Conclusion” of this valuable piece of research. The researchers tell us that frequency and kind of participles which Paul used in his epistles offer “no real additional assistance” in one’s study of the “Pauline Corpus” in regard to “literary styles.” Such a study is probably enough to make Paul, as we occasionally rather crudely put it, “turn over in his grave,” after he so carefully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wrote his epistles “not with excellency of speech or of wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1). It was Paul’s desire that man’s faith should “be in the power of God,” rather than in the “wisdom of men.” In which case, it seems that one might be able to preach the gospel and thereby save souls without understanding fully the “discriminant analysis” in “the Pauline use of the participle.” But perhaps you should jot down that IBM computer number, just in case. . . . (To be Continued)

Truth Magazine, XVIII:43, p. 3-5
September 5, 1974