CALVINIST RHETORIC: Jargon

, posted by Martin Glynn

Or “The Obscenity of Obdurate Obnubilating Obfuscation”

What I mean by Jargon

If we equate any philosophical debate to battle I would argue that our basic weapons are our ideas and arguments, and our rhetoric is our technique in wielding those weapons. But the battlefield, the terrain of the battle is the vocabulary we use. Therefore, he who controls the vocabulary of the debate holds the high ground.

It is little wonder then that so much of Calvinist rhetoric revolves around controlling the vocabulary of the discussion. It is incredibly common for them to create terms, adjust terms, or redefine terms for the purposes of making their point. To be honest, we should do more of this. Part of being clear is being conscience of the words that you are using, and why you are using them.

With Calvinists, however, they manipulate language so much that they have a language completely unto themselves. This is called jargon: a specialized vocabulary for a particular group, class, or discipline. Jargon is a necessary part of language. It is to make communication easier within that group. However, it also makes communication between that group and those outside of it more difficult. Calvinism has a tendency to become very tribal, and part of that is the key words that they use to distinguish themselves from other Christian groups. I think a lot of times people first get wrapped up in Calvinist vocabulary, and then fall in line with the doctrine.

Jargon in Action

Word Ownership

We are a book-bound faith. A foundational principle of Christian epistemology (the study/understanding of knowledge) is the necessity of revelation from God, and that a specific revelation of God has come to us through the Bible. Therefore everything which the Bible says we need to affirm.

It is important to note that the Bible has a vocabulary. There are certain words (like faith, grace, love, atonement, election, sovereignty, etc…) that all Christians need to affirm. Both Arminians and Calvinists use these terms. However, we understand these terms very differently.

Word ownership is essentially laying claim on a particular word. For instance, Calvinists do this with the term ‘grace’. They call their doctrine “The Doctrines of Grace”. This is an attempt to own the term. Since all Christians must believe in grace, and Calvinism embodies grace (supposedly), then Calvinism must be the epitome of Christianity, or so the implied logic goes.

This doesn’t work very well with the term ‘grace’ though, at least not when it comes to converting people. This is because grace is a commonly used word, and people can tell that Calvinists are using it in a nuanced way (highly nuanced…). They’ve done a much better job with the term ‘elect’.

Growing up in Arminian circles, I often heard the word ‘chosen’. We are God’s chosen people, and God would choose us for particular purposes. I didn’t hear about the term ‘elect’ until I ran into Calvinism. ‘Elect’ and ‘election’ were political words, and not ones I ran into within church settings. Now ‘elect’ means the same thing as ‘chosen’, but certain translations specifically use ‘elect’. So when a Calvinist comes along and starts using a “biblical term”, people start thinking his theology is more biblical as well. In reality, he’s just using a synonym that was more popular in 1611.*

Sinister Synonyms

This was somewhat implied within the last section, but another way that jargon shows up is in particular words which are consistently used in lieu of other synonyms. An excellent example of this is ‘sovereignty’.

Again, growing up, I often heard pastors preach about God’s authority. Sometimes they would preach about God’s majesty. However when I overheard someone discuss ‘sovereignty’, it generally had to do with local church sovereignty (I was raised Baptist).**

Again, ‘sovereignty’ means the same thing as ‘authority’ or ‘majesty’ (or more a combination of the two). The basic concepts were still there. However, by introducing a distinct new term, a Calvinist can make it sound as if they are introducing a neglected concept. The Calvinist can then hide certain theological ideas, such as meticulous predestination, behind such concepts.

When I am listening to someone explain a belief or idea that they just had, I usually repeat it back to them while rewording it to be sure that I understand it. I used to have a friend, I’ll call him Jason, with whom this would never. He would always quibble about the wording, and insist on the wording that he used. Eventually I did an experiment where I didn’t understand something that he was saying, but I repeated it back to him using his words. For the first time he thought I understood him.

It is hard to explain how this really works, but one can couch ideas in careful distinctions and often make it sound like there is more to the idea than there really is. Indeed, the distinctions can be so careful as to even fool the person making them. In general, one should be leery of this kind of particular parlance, because it usually indicates a glossy rhetorical veneer over very shabby ideas.

The End Result

Jargon, as a rhetorical technique, generally does at least one of two things. First it can give a false impression of competence, either in the speaker or in the idea. Using unknown words makes people sound smart, and often naming an idea makes it sound more official or accepted.

Second, it can rule out other ideas. By limiting the vocabulary of the conversation to words which they have taken the time to theologically load, they can gain an upper hand. They can make it sound like we are nuancing their idea, when, in reality, we are both nuancing things for the sake of being clear. The more words they own, the more their definitions sound like the “plain and ordinary meaning”.

As Arminians we should deal with this using two basic methods. A) Don’t be afraid to use “their terms” in Arminian ways. Talk about God predestining things. Talk about election. There is nothing wrong with it considering that they are in fact compatible ideas with Arminianism. B) Use jargon in concert with other synonyms. Interchange ‘sovereignty’ with ‘majesty’ or ‘kingship’ within the same paragraph. Expose that they belong to word families, and the synonyms are just as apt, without being as mysterious.

There are other effects that particular jargonal techniques can have. I intend on going over one of these in my next installment (not necessarily my next post. We’ll see).

For comments, see original post here.
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*There are, of course, Arminian circles which use the term elect. I do myself now. My point was merely that they didn’t in the circles in which I grew up.

** Again, there are plenty of Arminian circles which use the term sovereignty, and, again, I use the term myself now.