I often describe myself as a “word man” — reading and writing, listening and speaking are all important to me, and all of them require words. Doing them well, I think, requires an adequate vocabulary and a reasonable facility in using words properly.

It frustrates me if I hear someone using a word I don’t know, even when it’s one of those made-up terms that academics like to coin and toss around as if everyone should know what they’re running on about. I try to be cognizant of that with my students, and sometimes interrupt a lecture to explain the meaning of a word I’ve used that they may not know, but will continue to encounter in their studies.

Some of the words are of foreign origin, like heilsgeschichte — a German term that literally means “salvation history.” It speaks of God’s redeeming acts through the years, and is frequently used in Old Testament studies with reference to God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

Then there are ordinary English words that students should know, but often don’t — words like “tendentious” (something that promotes a particular viewpoint) or “fealty” (allegiance). The biblical books that scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua – 2 Kings, with the exception of Ruth), for example, tendentiously promote a theology that promises blessing in return for Israel’s fealty to God — the predominant understanding of heilsgeschichte in the Old Testament.

I am aware, of course, that most people can live their entire lives — and live perfectly good lives — without knowing any of those words, or hundreds of other terms not generally encountered in daily use. For all of us, what really matters is not so much how many obscure words we know, but how well we live out the words we claim: words like “Christian” or “love,” “faithful” or “friend.”

Words matter, but actions do the real talking.

Share This