Tuesday, May 1

Conflicting theological conversational styles

Frank Viola, in his book, Knowing Christ Together, states that much controversy between believers can be contributed to conflicting theological conversational styles. Two believers may actually have similar beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but because they employ a different theological jargon, they often mistakenly conclude that each others beliefs and experiences are worlds apart. He illustrates...
"Suppose Pete and Roger are carrying on a dialogue about the gift of prophecy. Pete is a Pentecostal. Roger is Reformed.

Pete believes the gift of prophecy exists today and claims to have it...his explanation of the gift is punctuated with expressions like "revelation," "thus saith the Lord," "God told me," "God showed me," etc.

Roger believes that "Divine revelation" is no longer given to the church and that the gift of prophecy ceased with the closing of the NT canon. Pete shares with Roger that he has given people personal prophecies...When Roger asks Pete about the content of these "prophecies," he discovers that they were mainly general exhortations and had no real impact on the people Pete delivered them to. Roger is both skeptical and turned-off by this.

You see, Roger rejects Pentecostal theology. And he does not employ standard charismatic jargon to describe his experiences. But he does have a vital relationship with God. In addition, Roger often receives "thoughts" and "burdens" to exhort, challenge, and direct others in their walk with God. He also senses things about people that go beyond his natural reasoning powers.

In one instance, Roger was awakened from sleep one night to write a letter to a friend who had left his church. After prayerfully writing the letter, he mailed it the next day. When his friend received the letter, he notified Roger and told him that it was exactly what he needed to hear. As a result, Roger's friend was restored to the Lord and to the church.

Roger was exercising the genuine gift of prophecy through his letter (1 Cor.14:3, 24-25), but he feels uncomfortable using the word "prophecy" to describe it. Because Roger fails to describe the letter with the charismatic accents that mark Pete's description of prophecy, it never occurs to Pete that Roger had in fact prophesied by the Spirit of God.

The fact of the matter is that Roger has operated in the gift of prophecy. However, because of his reformed doctrine concerning the gifts, Roger fails to call it by that label.

On the other hand, while Pete may use the correct label when describing this gift...Pete appears to have substituted his own good intentions, ideas, and zeal with the genuine gift of prophecy..."
Viola points out that we must seek to understand the semantic differences that Christians emply when describing spiritual experiences. "Rather than hone in on the specific rhetoric that one employs, it is better to seek to hear and understand the reality of another's experience. And to realize that they may describe it in a way that is foreign (and sometimes irritating!) to our ears."

In much of our work across denominational lines, we run up against this type of conflicting theological jargon. It becomes very easy to get caught up in the language others use to describe spiritual truths and experiences. Language then becomes a barrier between us. We end up judging one another on the basis of the kind of language we are using to basically describe the same kinds of things!


Heather said...

Thanks for writing this! I really needed to read it. I have struggled for a long time with someone very dear to me about these same sort of things... I appreciate this!


GuyMuse said...


I too struggle much with the language, definitions, and descriptions used by fellow believers. But once we truly begin to listen to their hearts--hear their stories, we can get beyond their "spiritual conversational styles" and realize we are really saying much the same things.

Lew A said...


You have touched on a very old and alive subject. Any philosopher will tell you it is important to not only define your own terms but to ask how your peers are defining their terms. There have been many arguments that have lasted too long because of a lack of understanding.

We all have a tendency to do this, when I debate my friends we debate for a while before we even realize we are arguing the same point, just using different vocabulary.

I guess it is easier to assume you are right and they are wrong, than it is to work definitions out from the get go.

Anyways, excellent post, thanks for sharing this with us.

God's Glory,

GuyMuse said...


Yes, most of us spend a lot of time arguing the same points due to our not taking the time to clarify defintions and our understanding of the words we choose to use.

Quite often we hear the phrase "the Lord told me", for something that I too have sensed, but would not have stated it with those words. I would rather use words like, "could it be the Lord is leading us...?", "is God impressing upon us such-and-such?" My jargon is open for correction, searching, trying to discern God's leading while taking into account others understandings of the issue. Yet, we are both getting at the same thing in seeking to understand what the Lord is saying to us. Of course, I prefer my language, but then my "God-told-me-brother" is also seeking to discern the mind of the Lord.

Strider said...

This post is excellent Guy! It very accurately describes much of our relationships with other believers of different backrounds. It is why labels are useless and we are better served by doing the hard of work of discerning each other's hearts rather than parsing each other's words.

GuyMuse said...


A good comment about the greater need of discerning each other's hearts rather than parsing each other's words. Alan Knox has an excelent post today entitled Do we want to be associated with a Samaritan? that complements what Viola is saying. Check it out.

Alan Knox said...


If only all followers of Jesus would understand what you wrote! We must stop debating with one another and start listening to and understanding one another. This will not happen as long as we are trying to pick apart what the other person is saying - thinking more about our "come back" than listening to the person. Thank you!


GuyMuse said...


Thanks for the comment and for an excellent post of your own today. It is sad when Christianity dwindles to our winning/losing a theological debate. Somehow we have lost touch with Christ's own life and ministry, and turned the Christian faith into a set of rules and beliefs that have to be adherred to.