The old adage says, “The devil is in the details,” but it is equally true that God is in the details. Especially in theology—literally, words or talk about God—precision in language is essential and it presents many challenges. One is simply finding the right words to express Christian truth, since God defies description and the central convictions of our faith—incarnation, atonement, resurrection and many others—remain deep mysteries.
An opposite challenge is that theological efforts to find those right words to express Christian truth often strike people as mere quibbling. In trying to explain why reform is needed in the ELCA, I often find myself trying to show how apparently minor issues of language are really the tips of much larger theological icebergs, and just as often find my explanations met with exasperation or glazed-over eyes.
Yet, what we say about God and how we say it really does matter. Here is one example. The synod where I serve recently announced the theme of this spring’s assembly. It will focus on evangelism, so the theme was taken from the title of a new hymn included in the new cranberry hymnal, “Will You Come and Follow Me?”
I am all in favor of emphasizing evangelism. The ELCA could use much more of that. But this theme is just inaccurate. None of the four Gospels ever record Jesus asking prospective disciples, “Will you come and follow me?” Instead, he issued a command, an order, a call. “Follow me,” he said, and those first recruits immediately dropped everything, left all behind and followed him.
So, the command was turned into a question. Why is that a big deal? It probably just fit the music better, right?
No doubt it did. But this switch in language is more significant than that. It presents a very different picture of Jesus. Rather than the Lord of heaven and earth, breaking into the lives of the first disciples with a compelling, life-changing call to follow him, turning his words into a question portrays him instead as merely making an offer, a kind of sales pitch to see if there are any takers, or pleading like some sort of divine panhandler, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”
The picture we have of Jesus, in turn, affects how we proclaim him. Do we present the Gospel as just an offer, as one among a host of competing claims, hoping that someone will agree to follow Jesus? Or do we declare the electing word of God that Jesus did, breaking into people’s lives with a sure declaration that he is Lord and Savior? Do we embrace decision theology, seeking to make winsome proposals that will appeal to sinners? Or do we cling to a theology of the Word that accomplishes what it declares—“your sins are forgiven”? (Mark 2:5)
A lot is at stake in what we say about God and in how we say it. That’s why Lutheran CORE is deeply concerned about language being used in the ELCA and other parts of Christianity today. When we address God as “Holy Trinity,” using the name of a doctrine, instead of the name of God, it makes a difference. When the second article of the Apostles’ Creed is changed from “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” to “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” severing any grammatical or Trinitarian connection between the Father and the Son, it makes a difference. When church leaders talk about “Lutheran approaches to Scripture,” rather than a “Lutheran approach to Scripture,” making room for varying levels of honoring or rejecting its authority, it makes a difference.
As we pursue this call to bring reform and renewal to the ELCA and the broader Christian Church, it is vital that we pay close attention to language and what is at stake in it. When it comes to theology, God is in the details—and so is the devil!
Pastor Scott Grorud, Lutheran CORE Steering Committee and WordAlone Board Member