linguistics through poetry

Am currently pondering limericks, for deep and serious academic reasons.

While painting the church steeple grey,

The wind blew our brushes away.

We said to the pastor,

“We’ve had a disaster.”

He calmly replied, “Let us spray.”

If every scholarly article featured a wee limerick or two, life would be very greatly enhanced.



by the willow trees

Yesterday the Free Church voted to allow congregations the liberty to use hymns and musical accompaniment in their worship services. To forestall blank looks: they always did sing! they sang things that were inspired, and they sang using their voices.

This is a serious step. It is a good thing that they consulted widely and discussed it for a lengthy period of time. It is a good thing that they prize unity so much. It is a good thing that the decision safeguards the continued singing of the Psalms in their congregations.

It is serious though because it is a clear break with the historic position of the Church in Scotland since the Reformation. The Free Church’s ties with the Reformation have been weakened by this decision.

It is serious because it undermines the Free Church’s commitment to purity of worship, something which they previously shared with other closely related denominations, who now have lost a partner in witness to the regulative principle of worship and through it, sola scriptura.

It is serious because, even though the form of worship is in itself a matter of lesser importance than the unity of the larger church, whatever threat there was to the unity of the larger church was not coming from office-bearers who respected their ordination vows or people who had intelligently and conscientiously become members of a church whose position on purity of worship was well known. Pragmatically speaking, this decision is conceivably justifiable as the relaxing of a lesser principle for the sake of a greater good, yet the ones who have lost the most are not the ones who had made the most fuss.

It is also serious because there was no weight of scripture behind the change. The Free Church did not yesterday discover a biblical principle which negated the regulative principle. It is possible that they may be dealing biblically with what would otherwise be an intolerable difference of opinion on forms of worship, much though I hae ma doots. But the scriptural case for inspired materials of praise sung a capella has not been overturned. Appealing to scripture for how to deal with disunity is a good thing. Appealing to scripture for how to format your worship service should come just as naturally, but it does not seem to have been as characteristic of either side of this debate as it was, say, twenty years ago, or in the 1870s, or prior to the Disruption. [UPDATE: A friend in the Free Church explains that it wasn’t accurate to say this. “Both James Maciver and Kenneth Stewart delivered superb addresses firmly grounded in first class exegesis in defence of the confessional position. Earlier on, during the consultative stage, Stewart had already written a very accomplished exegetical paper too.” I’m sorry to have written something misleading and happy to set the record straight.]

Consciences in the Free Church today may well be hurting. Obviously, there is no cause for the sprouting of another new denomination: sub-optimal practice does not un-make a church. And in the FPs there is at least one option for an alternative denominational home, if sociological considerations don’t make people overlook our existence, our shared confession, and our once shared practice. Watching from the sidelines, there are other heavy hearts in the spiritual Sion, hanging our metaphorical harps on the figurative willows. How can we sing the Lord’s song, in this foreign land?

(I’m off to catch a train now and will be away for the weekend. If you’re commenting, be nice please.)


Via the Heidelblog, an extremely interesting article on sola scriptura by Michael Horton.

One juicy excerpt:


“There is a basically “fundamentalist” approach to sola scriptura that can be reduced to the bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” In this expression, there is no sense that the content of what God said in any way constitutes its authority. A Muslim might say the same of the Qur’an or a Mormon of the Book of Mormon.

However, a genuinely evangelical approach maintains that Scripture is sufficient, not just because it alone is divinely inspired (though that is true) but because these sixty-six books that form our Christian canon provide everything God has deemed sufficient for revealing his law and his gospel. Speculation will not help us find God, but will only lead us to some idol we have created in our own image. We may feel more secure in our autonomy (self-rule) when we pretend that our own inner voice of reason, spirituality, or experience is the voice of the Spirit. We may be excited about a new program for transforming our nation, our families, and our own lives, but there is no power of God unto salvation in our own agendas and efforts. We can find all sorts of practical advice for our daily lives outside of the Bible. The evangelical view of sola scriptura does not mean that we do not need anything but the Bible for math, science, the arts, politics, or even daily principles for a host of decisions we make in our callings. What an evangelical (i.e., Reformational as opposed to fundamentalist) view does mean by sola scriptura is that everything we need for salvation and true worship is found in the Scriptures. The church has authority only to pass on what it has heard; it is the servant, not the Lord, of the covenant of grace.

The sufficiency of Scripture recognizes that we have everything we need for salvation and life in the canonical Word. “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jon. 2:9). It does not come from within us but to us from heaven, as the rescue operation of the triune God. And the form in which this gospel comes normatively to us here and now is Scripture. Even preaching is the Word of God only insofar as it proclaims the commands and promises issued by these sacred texts. The Bible is not the product of spiritual geniuses, sensitive gurus, and religious sages who can help us find God; it is the revelation from the God who seeks and saves the lost even while they are running from him.”


Read the whole thing.

shaping the messengers

Someone generously loaned me this book – Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T David Gordon – and I read it last night in one sitting. It is very short, very readable, and very much recommended.


Its two arguments are, firstly, that most preaching in orthodox Reformed congregations is dire, and also, that this can be attributed to ‘the movement from language-based media to image-based and electronic media’.

Dire, in this context, is objectively measurable. When you hear a sermon, two basic tests can be applied: 1) What was that sermon about? and assuming there is an answer, 2) Was that the point of the text which it was based on? According to the writer, from his experience in Reformed American denominations,

“I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, ‘The sermon was about X.’ Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read.”

Dire, in this context, is also confirmed by painful anecdotal evidence of unconvincing pulpit delivery, inadequately organised or structured content, and restless inattentive hearers – even when the doctrines were orthodox and people loved their pastor.

So far, so alarming, and distressing. But Gordon’s purpose in writing is not just to stick the boot in. His second argument, where he offers an explanation for this state of affairs, is supposed to identify ways to improve things.


The second argument, however, is only partly satisfying as an explanation for why things are the way they are. If sermons are inadequate on the exegetical or expository front, Gordon’s explanation for this is that Johnny no longer has the concentration or attention to detail required for the close reading of texts. If, on the other hand, sermons are poorly constructed on the organisational or delivery front, Gordon’s explanation is that Johnny no longer knows the discipline of writing texts (letters, articles, journal entries, eg). In both cases, this is attributed to our experience of electronic media — the pace of information flow, the immersion in what is trivial, and the practice of communicating with people who aren’t physically, visibly present, all combine to deprive people, preachers and hearers alike, of the capacity for sustained thought, a sense of what is significant (in earthly or eternal matters), and the ability to communicate in a focused rather than a babbling and rambling way.

But this can’t be entirely the explanation. It’s just too easy, to indulge the Grumpy Old Slash Earnest Young Man syndrome and blame modern technology for all the ills of today’s society. Certainly, technology has a profound (if not necessarily dramatic) impact on thinking and learning and behaviour patterns. Ong and Havelock are mentioned at one point – Ong’s brilliant essay on how ‘writing is a technology that restructures thought’ deserves much more attention than it gets, and understanding the differences between literacy and orality is an ongoing challenge. (Allow me to digress here for a sentence by saying that most of the criticisms of telephone conversation in Chapter 3 are only the result of a mistaken application of the criteria for written text to spoken dialogue – something that would never have happened had Halliday’s differences between spoken and written language been taken into consideration alongside Ong.) But the bewailing of the technology of electronic media is only an echo of the plaintive cries that have gone up from learned men ever since they could record their thoughts in writing. The very technologies that allow them to formulate, express, and propagate their views are somehow spelling the doom of all the rest of society. In reality, whatever technologies may be available, and whatever restructuring goes on in people’s minds as they get used to using these technologies, the gospel remains applicable. People didn’t outgrow the gospel when it was inscripturated, nor when the masses learned to read it for themselves, and neither does TV or email unfit people for the gospel, however much adaptation they demand.

This is demonstrated by several examples offered in the book itself. When a doctor is explaining what surgery is available for your life-threatening condition, people then listen intently. Powerful public speakers can hold an audience captive for any length of time. You can sit for ages in a concert on the edge of your seat and still want an encore when the orchestra stops. But presumably doctors and politicians watch TV and patients and audiences check email. It’s not that people have lost the gift of communicating, or that listeners are now incapable of sustained attention. If preachers are unconvincing and congregations apathetic, it can’t be because of any fundamental change in speaking or listening capacity.

What then? Possibly, the analysis is slightly back to front: “[Ministers,] like the rest of us, [are] constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane. … The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity – realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon – have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.”

Rather than technology making us dabble in trivialities, isn’t it at least possible that it’s our thoughtlessness in the weighty matters that makes us such suckers for creating and consuming frivolities. For sure, once we shrug off the thought of God, and lower our horizons so that eternity doesn’t impinge on our consciousness, we willingly confirm ourselves in the practice of frittering away our time and energies with the insignificant. But that is to press technology into bad service. There is nothing intrinsic to television that it should be so many people’s method of choice for amusing themselves to death, just as there is nothing intrinsic to written text that it should tempt the bookish into cold intellectualism devoid of spiritual life. We are just experts at adapting every tool for self-destructive ends, from fig leaf to video game – anything, everything, we can lay our hands on, to perpetuate the delusion that God doesn’t matter.

If the man in the pulpit isn’t compelled to be there, burdened with a message from the Lord, consumed with the urgency of the situation, desiring from his heart that his people would be saved – and if the people in the pews aren’t compelled to be there, yearning to know how they can be reconciled to God, hanging on the Word of the Lord, hunting high and low for the one who their soul loves – really, it’s not technology to blame.


What I would say then is that the usefulness of this book lies not in its critique of the preaching scene across the pond, nor entirely in its proposed diagnosis of the problem, but rather in its exceptionally clear depiction of what preaching is for, and what the soul in the pew can legitimately expect from the pulpit. Gordon explains beautifully (1) why preaching matters and (2) what its content should be like.

(1) Bad preaching is so serious for the Reformed, who are committed to the priority of preaching in the life and work of the Church: “When the Westminster Confession refers to the ‘conscionable hearing’ of the Word, this is what it means – to hear it as an act of conscience, which is bound to obey God. But the conscience is not bound to obey the minister; the minister is only to be obeyed insofar as he demonstrates to the hearer what God’s will is. Therefore, there is no religious use … in a sermon that merely discloses the minister’s opinion, but does not disclose the opinion of God. And there surely can be no use in a sermon that does not even disclose the minister’s opinion clearly.”

And (2) content-wise, it’s a question of preaching the gospel. The message, says Gordon, “should be the person, character, and work of Christ. What we declare, with Paul, is not ourselves, but Christ crucified. … The substance of our proclamation is the soteric fitness of the person and character of Christ, and the soteric competence of his work.” Further: “there is no need for some trade-off here, or some alleged dichotomy suggesting that we need to preach morality if we are to have morality. No; preach Christ, and you will have morality. Fill the sails of your hearers’ souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives.”


A certain textbook, whose title and author will remain unnamed until I’ve stopped teaching from it, has the following piece of wisdom to offer on the question of whether children use certain constructions more often depending on how often these constructions are produced by adult speakers of the language.*

“Frequency certainly may have effects. For example, Gathercole (1986) found [that] Scottish children use a present perfect construction more frequently than children acquiring English; presumably Scottish adults do so also.”

For one thing, there’s no “presumably” about it – the abstract of Gathercole’s article specifically states that “Scottish adults use the present perfect construction in their speech to children much more frequently than American adults do,” and how lame is that, not to even check the abstract of the only paper you’re going to discuss under the heading of frequency effects?

More irksomely: didn’t the author realise that Scottish children are actually acquiring English?

Black affronted.


* Sloppy wording, inconsistency in citations (some in-text, others as footnotes), obscure argumentation, unfair presentation of arguments/results which don’t fit the favoured dogma, and apparently an entire failure to find a proofreader, are some of the other unique selling points of this textbook. I hope I never have to use it again.