"Talking the Walk" by Marva Dawn

Susan Disston
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2006

"When we speak bad theology, we live badly theologically." In seventy-two pithy, very personal essays, Marva Dawn provides ample proof for that assertion. The latest offering from this theologian and teacher targets the contemporary bent towards the corruption of words and their meanings. But not just any words. Rather, the essential words of traditional Christianity, words that are so key to the Christian faith that "churches (and individual Christians) cannot flourish if the names are corrupted."

The goal of her writing is to "rectify the names." The phrase came from Confucius originally, but was used years ago by a Pennsylvania congressman who was contending against a misleading title assigned to a bill before Congress. The bill was called the Tax Reform Act, but it was not at all about reforming the tax code. When asked about what difference it made what the bill was called, the congressman responded, "A great man named Confucius taught that government cannot operate honestly if the names are dishonest. This amendment to the title of the bill is an attempt at a fundamental goal of good government: the rectification of the names.'"

Similarly, Dawn says a fundamental goal of good church teaching must be the "rectification of the names," that is, right teaching of the words central to Christianity and a corresponding willingness to correct the wrongheaded ideas that circulate in our churches. Dawn is concerned about guarding the definitions of our essential Christian words so that we stay true to our Christian identity when our words become subject to inevitable cultural shifts.

Like a lot of Christians, Dawn is dismayed that biblical faith is being replaced by "something less than faithfulness because of distortions in language," what she calls elsewhere, "theological jargon" that appears in Christian lyrics, liturgy, and publications. She longs for a movement in Christian circles-across all denominational lines-that would fight for the "essential words [that] should be retained in all their customary truth and eternal mystery." She contends that it is in those words that we preserve what is the source of "truly meaningful life, of genuinely loving mission, of infinitely deep delight." In other words, the meaning of our Christian words matter, and because they matter, the authenticity and veracity of the Christian faith is at stake when they are misused, abused, overused, rendered obsolete, or unfashionable.

In the Diary of a Country Priest, the unhappy protagonist notes, "It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words." Dawn acknowledges the instability of words and definitions in the introduction to the book. Yet, she says that it is critical that the church agree that "even in the midst of change, the traditional (in the best sense of that word), orthodox, catholic faith is intellectually credible" and that "the faith always needs to be rethought in each age and modified in some particulars, but not in essence." Dawn is not denying that our Christian words periodically need to be freshly nuanced, but she is pleading for Christians to insist that they preserve their essential meanings (their consistent and honest Christian meanings) from generation to generation.

For Dawn the pathway for the "rectification of names" is for Christians to stay in touch with the Triune God as revealed in the Bible. Her essays are preeminently about reverence and worship of God, and secondarily about God-glorifying interpretation and discipleship. We best resist corruptions of our faith and practice through the reading of the Word of God and worship. On postmodernism and its need to situate the definition of Christian words in personal context, she says, "Maybe our modernist need to control everything by scientific explanation and our postmodern need to deconstruct dogma need to be exchanged for a more awed beholding, a more humble bowing before, and a more ardent and radiant knitting of our lives to, the God-Man Jesus the Christ, our Lord."

Many people will resonate with the "corruptions" discussed in Dawn's essays. She honestly writes about her own tendencies to corrupt, misuse, and distort some of the more difficult Christian truths into more comfortable, less daunting definitions. She reflects on the spiritual quagmire they create in the believer and talks out loud about the theological conundrums. Then she offers an answer. Not a final answer, but a right path for further inquiry, for refining one's thinking, for coming to know more deeply the traditional, orthodox, catholic response to our corruption of the words. On God's wrath, for example, she says, "The wrath of God is too terrible and too mysterious for us, so we'd rather just ignore it. On the other side of the theological spectrum, some people like to emphasize the wrath of God … , as if scaring the hell out of people will make good disciples out of them. What is missing in both of these opposite corruptions is serious reading of the texts." Then after a brief discussion of biblical texts, she says, "The reason that I want to reclaim the wrath of God is that without it we don't properly handle the injustices and cruelties of our world."

She discusses words that you would expect, like sin, guilt, judgment, and hell. She also includes the unexpected, such as misuses of brokenness, behold, victim, and opinion. On opinion she says, "The value of 'Opinion' in our society has been so corrupted as to have taken on sinful proportions. Opinions have become our personal gods or, more accurately, the proof that we are our own gods. They signify our autonomy, a massive leveling of all convictions, the abandonment of all standards, the elimination of truth. It drives me nuts! I have tried to talk with certain pastors about the historic faith, about doctrines upon which the Church has agreed for centuries, and the response is always, 'Well, that's your opinion; we're entitled to our own.'"

Talking the Walk could successfully be used in the church as a text for a Sunday school class or small group that wanted to introduce right theological thinking with discussions about mistaken ideas and common theological errors. The book is organized in a way that models how Christians come to attain the kind of sound theology that leads to right living. Calvin wrote in his Institutes, "[N]early all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."

Talking the Walk is in three parts: the first and third parts contain words that provide sound knowledge of God and his actions. The second part is about human beings and our plight, entitled "Why Do Human Beings and the World Need God?" Her essays make the case that to mis-know in the first part is to mis-know in the other part, and hence to mis-worship the Triune God and to misunderstand his actions and ourselves.

G. K. Chesterton said, "But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out." Marva Dawn says we should insist on the former and fight for it, for the glory of God and for the preservation of the truth for the next generation.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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