Epithets

From time to time people who are more pious than Paul contend that the language used to describe the erroneous views of heretics or others whose teachings or lifestyles are dangerous to believers is intemperate. Doubtless there have been some who have gone too far not only in what they have said, but also in how they have said it. But it is possible to go too far in the direction of temporizing too.

I raise this matter because, it seems to me, in our super refined age Christians have erred on the side of delicacy in their dealings with sin and deception. That is strange in this age of supposed honesty and openness.

High on the list of things that just aren't done is name calling. Doubtless, most Christians would concur with this denouncement: "I wouldn't stoop to name calling." But this attitude is cultural rather than biblical. Jesus called Herod "that fox" (Luke 13:32), and both He and John the Baptist alluded to the scribes and Pharisees as a "brood of vipers" (Matt. 3:7; 12:34). We must be a little more careful, therefore, before we place our modern epithets on those who may, after all, be the more scriptural. Prudence and prudishness must not be confused.

How can we justify the use of such epithets? Calvin, a man who was not loathe to occasionally use labels like these, though not so frequently as his contemporary Martin Luther, commenting on Matthew 12:34 says, "And till hypocrites are sharply pierced, all that is said to them is treated with scorn and contempt." In other words, Calvin believed it was sometimes necessary to use sharp language to penetrate the defenses men build against the truth. That also would be true in speaking a strong word of warning about Herod; apart from Jesus' memorable epithet, "that fox," it would have been easier for others to have been taken in by his duplicity and cunning.

Some people who wish to be more circumspect than Christ object to any and all strong language. Even those who give warnings that fall far short of name calling are denounced with a vigor more vehement than anything in the warning itself. It is a strange era in which we live. Men dare not strongly warn their brothers about insidious teachings in memorable language designed to pierce apathy without themselves being subjected to vituperation for doing so! Presumably, good taste, as it is defined by those who want others to exercise it, is of greater moment than truth. And those self-appointed guardians of good taste, it seems, consider themselves exempt from their own rules. What I am saying is this: Don't be terribly impressed when you read a critic attacking someone for his language while avoiding much of what he has said. It is a cunning tactic that many persons employ when they do not know how to escape from a powerful expose of their error. Rather than admit error, they attack the man who exposed it, often criticizing his language.

I do not believe in using strong language or epithets unless it is absolutely essential to do so, and am quite careful to qualify my language and to attack the positions various persons hold rather than the persons themselves. I can think of only rare occasions when I have found it necessary to use language even approaching the language of Christ in Matthew 23. And yet, from time to time I have been attacked personally by those who have a difficult time handling criticism given in the tamest sort of language. Please don't misunderstand. I am not complaining; such reverse criticism does not bother me in the least. What concerns me is that others may be taken in by such responses and diverted from the warning. By their verbal counterattacks, foxy persons seek to deflect liability for their own errors onto those who exposed them. So do not be deceived. Criticism of language usage not only can be used as a diversionary tactic; it can be carried so far that it condemns the Lord Jesus Himself.

Jay E Adams

Institute for Nouthetic Studies

100 White Meadow Ct
Simpsonville, SC 29681

(864) 399-9583

 

         

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