Translating Theology

abstract painting

C.S. Lewis believed pastoral candidates should be required to translate a theological work into contemporary language before they could be ordained. Imagine how fewer ordained ministers there would be if this were enforced! “Until theology has been interpreted to ordinary people,” Roger Lloyd once wrote, “only half its work is done.”

Translating theology requires a knowledge of both theology and people. It reflects love of God and love of neighbor. If theology begins in as an effort to love God, translating theology for others is an outgrowth of our love for neighbor. As per usual, Lewis says it best:

“Our business is to present that which is timeless (that which is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age. . . .We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at all laying down a priori what the “plain man” does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience. . .You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential.”

This last week I was pleased to host a conference on this very topic featuring FLAME, Sarah Sparks, and Andrew Peterson. I invited artists—wordsmiths—because of the attention and care they give to crafting a particular message for a particular audience. The were absolutely wonderful. You can find some of the videos from the event here.

I gave a plenary address on Lewis’s use of fiction to present Christian truth, which I called “The Apologetics of a Talking Faun.” I offered a list of summary thoughts on the topic of translating theology in that talk that I’ll give here as well.

1. Theology must be translated.

2. Orthodoxy is more than mere propositions.

3. The Bible is one big beautiful story.

4. Creativity is not a substitute for orthodoxy.

5. We must find ways around “watchful dragons.”

6. We must use our gifts in love.

7. The Christian is the one whose imagination should soar beyond the stars.

If you find the list intriguing, and want a little more context, you might check out my talk (here). The book on this topic I return to often is “Borderland” by Roger Lloyd, which I quoted from earlier in the post. If you’re thinking you need to grab a copy of the book, I’m in the same boat as I gave my copy away at the event. The following quote from Lloyd is a great summary of the need for theological translators:

“Now the Christian artist who thinks of himself not as a theologian but as an artist working upon theology, is similarly bound to truth, or he could not claim the title of Christian. But he is not at all bound to the same precise exactness of statement. By vocation from God his first servitude is delight. His business is to make the truth aesthetically pleasing and to communicate to his readers the delighted pleasure he has himself found in it. A sense of style, which to the theologian is comparatively unimportant, is to the artist an absolute necessity.”