Paul Holmer on the Meaning of Religious Language

by Jonathan Sweeney

There are people for whom denominational tags become the source of inordinate pride. Such people, I have found through some conversation, often derive much of their denominational satisfaction from the security of tried doctrinal systems. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with firmness of conviction, so long as one is not credulous and belief does not become easy.

Take, for example, a Lutheran minister’s spouse I once knew who could proclaim loudly the certainty of Missouri Synod dogma over and above that of other Lutherans. She was prone to say things like once saved, always saved and doctrine never changes, with a voice of conviction. When I mentioned on one such occasion that Luther himself spoke of sighing and crying “Oh, Father!” as including everything of the strongest faith, she was dismayed.

What I think she was missing more significantly than dogma, Lutheran or otherwise, was the fact that Martin Luther stands out in the history of the Church as one who believed in a living God. Unlike most of us, he read the Bible and wrote treatises as if God were still living and active. As such, his faith was not contained in words but in a life of passion and emotion.

One who stands in this tradition of combining pathos and hard thinking is Paul Holmer, former Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. Holmer once wrote that, “Some men have faith produced by their religion, their creeds, or their theologies.1 This sort of “innocence,” Holmer went on to write, is not only difficult to maintain in the face of education and experience, but it is ultimately undesirable. We should move deeper not for some false intellectual integrity or security, but that we might understand the meanings of the many words we have acquired in the Christian vocabulary. Victory and certainty are never wholly won, but an overriding passion for these words makes each of us want to understand for ourselves what, for instance, the Apostle Paul meant when he said that to live was Christ and to die was gain. “We don’t read the meaning off of these words,” as Professor Holmer would say, but we learn their meaning by using these words to form our lives.

So, the tragedy of holding fast to doctrinal systems can be insidious. There obviously is much good to intensive study of the Bible, but, at the same time, it is a mistake to think that understanding the meaning of those words comes as a result of detached study or objective reasoning. As Holmer writes, these sorts of preoccupations are often maintained at the expense of understanding the meaning of Christian words by using them. “While it purports to push doubt away, it also inserts a humanly devised conceptual scheme by which to get the Scriptures to disclose the Almighty.”2 Of course, this is not the rule, but the danger.

There is also a difficulty when the language of theology becomes incommensurate with the language of the Bible. This too often happens when we see the Bible only as a point of departure for a more systematic grid needed to make it all “cohere.” Then, systematizing becomes a kind of scheming for literalness and interconnectedness, making the Bible out to be “an introduction into a better theological scheme that lurks within it.”3

Part of the trouble goes back in time to the first centuries of the Christian Era. It partakes of the notion that in Holy Scripture there lies “hidden meaning” which we must find a way to ascertain. But, the unique twist of most evangelical theologies is that this meaning is not esoteric, or reserved for the privileged few Rather, the Bible becomes a literal plain truth, as Holmer puts it, or a storehouse of facts, according to Charles Hodge. Only it supposedly needs a theology to speak for it—something which will substitute for the multi various moods and emotions expressed, modes of writing contained, and the actual ambiguities of the Bible itself. “The system, which is logically tighter, conceptually better defined, looks like the literal rendition of what one otherwise has in parables, epistles, and the miscellany of admonitions, indicatives, and moodful literature of the Bible.”4 In short, theology, as traditionally conceived, can (perhaps ironically) keep us from the serious and otherwise difficult task of coming to understand the meaning of religious language.

One day in the early 1970s, Holmer was walking out of the chapel at Yale University with some of his students after a service. He remarked at how beautiful the choir had sounded. One of the graduate students replied, “Yes, if we are just scholarly enough to be able to profit from the Latin.” To which Holmer quickly responded, “If you can catch ‘laud,’ that’ll be enough.”

To his students and many former students, Paul Holmer is well known for his disregard of high circumstance and meaningless chatter. With wit he often notices emotions that are fleeting and believing that comes simply. He discovers much of this genuineness in the churches.

Students will remember characterizations like “goosing each other up” in the singing of praise songs, or, those who “think they have the poop on theology.” Chatter of this sort is what Kierkegaard calls tickling of ears in his discourse “Against Cowardliness.” But the same danger— of missing the meaning of religious language—exists in the academy.

Like Wittgenstein, Holmer maintains that there is a learning of faith which is distinct from learning about faith. Like Kierkegaard, Homer insists that the life of faith requires interested passion, not the disinterested posture of academic study. In Holmer’s words, “Theology is the language of Christian enthusiasm.”5

Once a great doubter himself during his undergraduate years, Holmer understands the seductions of scholarship. All too often, disinterested and technical study takes the place of an interested and involved faith. Holmer writes:

This is often how it is. A person begins with a firsthand and immediate need and ends with a secondhand and mediated resolution. One of the easiest achievements is a kind of chatty consciousness of what scholars have said . Despite the respectability of this kind of resolution of religious concern, still it is a folly, if not a gross error, for the human spirit to let that substitute for a first-hand Christian life and its appropriate assurances.6

There certainly are fruits of religious scholarship, Holmer writes, but the language of faith is not one of them.

The point here. is. really quite simple. To speak about God with great conviction, and with words that appear appropriate cannot substitute for a life which has made room for God in the most fundamental ways. To praise God, to fear God, to love God, is to know something fundamental of God. This is a knowledge that creeds alone can never bestow.

1. Paul Holmer, “Evangelism and Our Culture,” The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, Feb. 1952: 10.

2. Paul Holmer, “Contemporary Evangelical Faith: An Assessment and Critique,” The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing, eds. David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, rev. ed. 1977): 95.

3. Ibid.: 97.

4. Ibid.: 98.

5. Paul Holmer, Theology and the Scientific Study or Religion (Minneapolis·T.S. Denison and Company, 1961): 19.

6. Ibid.: 17.