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A Theology of Profanity

Over the weekend I posted a brief review of the film To End All Wars and indicated that, while it was quite a good movie, I would hesitate to recommend it because of the amount of swearing it contains. That comment led to some discussion over at Boars Head Tavern and another blog or two. Joe Carter also wrote a lengthy article entitled “What the @*&#…? A Christian Critique of Swearing” in which he discussed my position among others. As I read critiques of my Puritanical outlook on swearing I realized that I have an underdeveloped “theology of profanity” - I know what I believe about the issue, but not why I beleve it. And so, as I usually do, I began to research and write. This article and one which I hope will follow tomorrow will be the fruits of my effort.

Judging by what I have read on this topic it seems to be a prerequisite that the person writing affirm his ability to swear. So let me assure you that I can swear as well (or as poorly, depending on your perspective) as anyone. Being raised in a Christian home and attending a Christian school, though certainly great blessings, did not negate the desire to learn and use the rich, vulgar vocabulary so prevelant in society. One does not have to be a Marine or a member of the Air Force to swear. So while I am perfectly capable of doing so, like most Christians, I have found that as I have grown in holiness, my swearing has slowed accordingly. Or, as Joe Carter said, “that the further along I tread on the path to sanctification the less I feel the need to use such language myself.”

Too many people, when discussing this issue, approach from what I feel is the wrong perspective. When we examine any issue of morality, ethics or Christian living we should not approach from the perspective of “what can I get away with?” but of “how Christ-like can I be.” So let’s approach from that perspective, not seeking license but seeking absolute purity and conformity to God’s perfect standards.

A common argument against limiting vocabulary is that God did not include in the Bible a list of forbidden words. This, of course, would not have been possible as words, along with their meanings, change from culture-to-culture and from language-to-language. My purpose is not to provide a list of words that a Christian can say with a clear conscience and another that, when uttered, will require repentance and forgiveness. That would be satisfyingly legalistic, but would also be both unrealistic and unbiblical.

We should also note that words are deemed profane not on the basis of something intrinsic to a combination of letters or sounds but on the basis of their cultural understanding. You have probably heard, as I have, of people with names that, in one society would be considered profane while in others they have an entirely different meaning (by way of example, “Fuk” is, I believe, an acceptable Korean name). Words, then, have a meaning that is extrinsic to their combination of letters or sounds. Meaning is assigned within a language and even within a society. That the letter combination s-h-i-t spells a word that is considered profane while the letters p-o-o-p do not, is societal convention. We may be tempted to decide that this is ludicrous and declare emancipation from such societal silliness, but the fact is that words carry with them meaning, in both denotation and connotation. We cannot seperate these two. While words have only extrinsic meaning, it cannot be denied that they do have meaning and they are used to communicate ideas or sentiments. Thus the extrinisic meaning is what determines whether a word is acceptable or profane.

Before we begin, I feel it is important that we realize that the tongue is not an isolated instrument in the body. The tongue or the mouth speaks for the heart. Said otherwise, what proceeds from the mouth is a sure indication of what is in the heart. If a mouth pours forth filth, it is a sure indication that there is also a filthy heart. If a tongue spews forth rebellion, there is rebellion in the heart. If the tongue pours out praise, there is godly joy in the heart. We see this most clearly in the books of Proverbs and James. “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth” (Proverbs 10:20). Note the parallel between the tongue and the heart. ” So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5). So while in this brief article we may be examining words, the issue strikes deeper - as deep as the heart.

We will not discuss swearing at another person, nor will we discuss using blasphemous words, for those are both clearly forbidden in the greatest and the second greatest commandments. Using a profane word to describe another person is wrong on a deeper level than merely the words used for it shows that there is anger and hatred towards that person. Thus these words are merely a sympton of a far deeper problem. The same is true of blasphemous words uttered against God. What we will discuss, then, is the idle or flippant use of words that society has deemed to be profane. These are the words you might use to describe defecatory activities or the words you might scream when you stub your toe. We all know them far too well.

As with all matters of morality we must begin with the Bible, since, as Protestants, we believe it to be our only infallible guide for matters of life and faith. We need to look at this from two angles: from the angle of what is forbidden in Scripture and from the angle of what is commanded. We will turn to that discussion in our next article.