A Theology of Writing
Since we should pray all the time and about everything (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:19), we should be able to pray through our theology and our sense of calling. To that end, I cite The Book of Common Prayer’s “Prayer For Those Who Influence Public Opinion”:
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Everyone reading this who has written or will write comes under the province of this fine prayer, as do public speakers (but I won’t address that here). For those who pray this prayer and who want to be the recipients of its blessing, a theology of writing is in order. Those who desire to write what is true so that what is written makes hearts wise, minds strong, and wills righteous need to know what Almighty God might have to say about their vocation or avocation of writing. As in all things, our writing should be for the glory and honor of Jesus Christ, our Lord (I Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). Since my expertise in writing nonfiction, my comments have this in mind.1
First comes the metaphysics. Our words can have meaning, be true, and be wise only because of who God is and how he made the universe. The universe is not “just there,” as Bertrand Russell said. It was fashioned for communication.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind (John 1:1-4, NIV).2
The word used for Word in Greek is Logos and refers to Christ before he incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos is fully divine, eternal, and “with God.” As the original Greek emphasizes, the Logos and God are not merely adjacent to each other like two stone pillars, but face-to-face. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of his fellowship with God the Father “before the foundation of the world” (John 17). We again see that the Father and the Logos were communicating in perfect communion. From other texts, we know that the Holy Spirit was there as well, making up the Holy Trinity: One God who exists in three co-equal and co-eternal persons (Matthew 3:13-17; 28:18-20; Acts 5:1-4; 2 Corinthians 13:14).3
Logos (word) has a rich treasury of meaning, which is germane to our writing. It is a unit of intelligible meaning that can be communicated truly. Meaning requires a rational ordering and structure. Words without definition and context are meaningless. This ties into another meaning for Logos, which is, not surprisingly, logic. Theo-logy means the logic of God. Anthropo-logy means the logic of man. John tells us that the Logos is the ordering principle and logic of the universe. But, unlike the Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics, who viewed the Logos as an impersonal and faceless principle, this Logos is a personal and interpersonal being, God himself. The Logos ensures that his creation has enough light in which to see him and others truly. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4; see also Psalm 36:9).
Because of the Word, our words can serve reality by being true and fitting. We are not writing in the void, hoping our scribbling will somehow set off felicitous effects here and there. Rather, our use of semantics, grammar, and style reflects the Logos himself and shows his workings in edifying communication.4
The atheist philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) testified to this in a backhanded way. “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”5 Grammar presupposes a universal and rational order known through language. The structure of intelligible language approximates the structure of reality outside of language. The best explanation for grammar is its creation by a rational and personal God to reflect reality and give humans knowledge through thought and language. Every time Nietzsche wrote anything he acted against his own worldview, since he denied the only reality that could give any meaning to his own ideas. Christians are not so stricken with intellectual inconsistency. For this, we should thank and praise our God.
Several writers of scripture tell us why they write, and they can inspire us to write well. Luke, in his Gospel, tells us why he wrote and of his method of gaining knowledge.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke was, along with others, a servant of “the word” (logos). Thus, he writes a well-researched, accurate, and orderly report of the life of Jesus. Therefore, Theophilus could have intellectual confidence about the Word.
The wise man of Ecclesiastes demonstrated a patient zeal for knowledge as well.
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).
While we cannot write Holy Scripture, we can be “servants of the word” through studious preparation and orderly presentation, keeping in mind what needs to be written for the sake of the Gospel and the common good.
Since the church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), Christians should be people of truth who yearn to impart knowledge to those in need of it. While this should be especially focused on the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), we must extend our efforts toward both the lost and the deceived—those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Jesus said, “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37; see also James 3:1-12). This applies to both spoken and written words.
We read John’s emphasis on the Word in his prologue, and such emphases are throughout his work. Near the end of his Gospel, after describing Jesus’ crucifixion, he writes:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
John also wrote:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
In all of my writing, I attempt indirectly or directly to commend the Christian worldview. I may critique a non-Christian viewpoint, suggest Christian themes, defend the gospel itself, or encourage Christians to speak the truth in love in their lives. I scheme to be published in settings where Christianity is seldom or never on view. Paul, the great church planter and apologist, inspires me: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Christian writers need to break out of the Christian bubble by getting published in books, journals, secular magazines, newspapers, blogs, web pages, and everywhere else. Even reviews on Amazon and YouTube can change hearts and minds for the better.
Risking failure in writing for the glory of God has rewards unknown to those who always play it safe. Remember the teacher in Ecclesiastes:
Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.
Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed a in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6; see also Luke 18:1-8).
Rejection notices come with the craft of writing. If you write a query letter, a publisher will accept your idea or not. If you don’t try your writing definitely will not get published. We are sowing literary seed. Only God knows what kind of soil it will fall on. Our job is to sow faithfully, pray earnestly, wait on the Lord, and jump on any chances God provides.
While risk is inherent in getting published, foolishness is never called for. One must be prudent in calibrating expectations to effort. Spending three months writing an unsolicited editorial for The New York Times is foolish—unless you have a big name or God has vouchsafed a revelation that they will publish it against all odds. But spending a half hour writing a letter to The New York Times is not imprudent, even if it remains unpublished. (I have done this about eight times.)
Writing is a craft requiring a distinctive style or voice. Each Gospel writer has his own manner of writing, for example. Some talent is inborn, but most is acquired through practice, critique, tenacity, and humility. God gives all good gifts and bestows wisdom (James 1:5; Proverbs 8). Therefore, prayer is essential in writing and publishing—and everything else (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:19). That is why I began this essay with a prayer.
Good writers write regularly. Some of us can’t stop and border on hypergraphia. Since anyone can publish anything anytime from anywhere, it is easy to air one’s writing for public inspection. Literary profligacy, however, is not advised. Too many words already mar the intellectual landscape. “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11).
Good writers need good editors. To accept adept editing requires humility. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), expertly edited nearly all my work through Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Christian Faith (2011). She made me a better thinker and writer. Her judgments were impeccable, and I quickly learned—while we were still dating—that her suggestions and corrections trumped my original offerings. Sadly, I lost her skills years ago when she contracted dementia.6 God has graciously given me a kind and skillful soul who edits me in a style similar to Becky.
Everyone’s writing can be improved through editing. Believe me, bad editors exist (and I have suffered through a few), but professional editors nearly always improve your work. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Good writing is always teamwork in some way.
Writers have a better chance of being read if they possess a pleasing style. Paul says: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Paul is addressing our thoughts, but his principle can be extended to writing. Even the most difficult subjects can be rendered in pleasing prose (and the simplest can be poorly written).7
By reading and reflecting on masterful writers throughout history, we can learn to imitate their virtues of clarity, sincerity, descriptive prowess, insight, cleverness, and concision. Outside of the biblical authors I am inspired by the classic writing of Blaise Pascal, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis, as well as contemporary authors such as Os Guinness, J. I. Packer and Roger Scruton.
Developing a style worth reading requires the mastery of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Above all, writers must be clear in order to communicate at all. What Paul says about speaking in a known language in church (as opposed to tongues) applies to writing as well:
Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:7-9).
But there is more to style than clarity. Many books have been written on style, but I offer a few suggestions. The thinnest and best book is still Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which allows for no fluff, lack of clarity, ambiguity, loquacity, or eccentricity. George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is a moral and literary critique of the dissimulation and obfuscation that passes for truth in much political and other kinds of writing. Harry Frankfurt’s little gem, On Bullshit, takes aim and hits the same targets.8
Dull prose about great things is inexcusable. The Christian writer should write creatively and with a lively imagination, as much as his or her gifts allow. As Francis Schaeffer wrote:
Christian artists do not need to be threatened by fantasy and imagination, for they have a basis for knowing the difference between them and the real world “out there”… The Christian is the really free man—he is free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.9
For inspiration to write lively prose about profound topics, you can do no better than to read Dorothy Sayers’s classic essay, “The Greatest Dogma Ever Staged.”10 It begins thus:
Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as “a bad press.” We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—“dull dogma,” as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.11
That God became man and died at the hands of men is a truth that should never be turned into a platitude. Read Sayer’s priceless essay as a tonic against lifeless writing about eternal life!
Style should never get in the way of meaning nor should personal style be ostentatious or idiosyncratic. Flashing lights make for tiresome prose. The writer is the servant of the reader, and ultimately the servant of God, the Author of all things. Thus, the writer should take a humble but confident stance as a messenger. One’s talents should be at full throttle, and there is no sin in aspiring to great writing. But, egotism is as annoying in writing as it is anywhere else. As skilled as C. S. Lewis was as a writer, I have never gotten the sense that he was showing off.
More nuance and substance should be added to a theology of writing. May others continue where I now end. I have written this that my reader may learn to write well for the glory of God and the common good. While it is true that “when words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Proverbs 10:19, NRSV), “a word in season” brings joy to both writer and reader (Proverbs 15:23).
May we write and read such words.
- I have written a few dialogues and Screwtape-like letters, but no short stories, plays, or novels. Philosophy Now published my fictional dialogue, “At the Existentialist Park” (October/November 2018). It is on line at: https://philosophynow.org/issues/128/At_the_Existentialist_Park
- All subsequent biblical quotes are in the New International Version, unless noted.
- On the Trinity, see The Athanasian Creed at https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed.
- Francis Schaeffer develops these themes in “The Epistemological Necessity: the Problem” and “The Epistemological Necessity: the Answer” in He is There and He is not Silent (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001).
- Frederick Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols,” Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1982), 483.
- See Douglas Groothuis, Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- Steven Pinker argues against bad academic writing in “Why Academic Writing Stinks,” Chronicle of Higher Education (September 26, 2014). On line at: https://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/why_academics_stink_at_writing.pdf.
- Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (orig. pub.1972; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 90-91.
- For an introduction to Dorothy Sayers, see Chris Armstrong, “Dorothy Sayers: The Dogma is the Drama: Interview with Barbara Reynolds,” Christianity Today (December 15, 2005). https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/decemberweb-only/52.0a.html.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” in The Whimsical Christian (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co, Inc., 1978), 11.
Copyright © Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness, a Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017), Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Short Introduction to a Vast Topic (InterVarsity Press, 2016) and Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith(InterVarsity Press, 2011) as well as ten other books. www.DouglasGroothuis.com