Good Theology, Bad Grammar?

It started as a joke. I was in college, reading a book for one of my classes. “Wow, theologians have terrible grammar!” My reaction came after reading yet another run-on sentence. It was an older piece of work, written when this kind of construction was perhaps more permissible. And I knew the motivation: This writer had so much to say—so many connections to make—that the writer felt compelled to cram as much as possible before every period.

Several years later, I chuckled at myself: suddenly a copy editor. Every day, my job was to fix the grammar and style of theologians. (And I’ll be happy to note that run-on sentences were not a frequent issue.)

But then the theology/grammar balance came full circle, and this time, I truly laughed.

I was sitting in a hallway, looking at my poem—a hymn text, to be exact. It said everything I wanted it to say, and how I wanted to say it. My words, however, broke one of the key principles for strong writing: much of it was written in passive voice.

Writers are continually reminded that active voice should be used over passive voice to keep the text engaging, exciting, and . . . active. It’s the difference between “I played the piano” and “the piano was played” or “I love you” and “you are loved by me.” The overall meaning is still true both ways, but there are significant differences in the focus of each option. Most of the time, passive voice is boring.

Except when God’s Word comes in. In fact, passive voice plays an important role in the way we see ourselves as God’s beloved. In many cases, passive voice—often deemed as bad grammar—makes for good theology.

For example, let me share some of that hymn text with you:

Brought to the water and cleansed through the Word,
Filled by the Spirit and claimed by the Lord . . .

Blessed and redeemed by the grace that won’t end . . .

Marked on your brow by the seal of the Lamb . . .

All of these phrases are passive. And there’s good reason for that. One the most beautiful points about grace is that we do nothing. Zip. Nada. We are completely passive when it comes to the salvation our Savior has won for us (Romans 5:8). We are passive in receiving the faith the Holy Spirit gives us (1 Corinthians 12:3). We are passive in the loving welcome our Father extends to His children (1 John 3:1).

Sometimes, it’s good to be passive! Relish the fact that God’s mercy has nothing to do with your actions. God is faithful, even when we are faithless. We are able to be passive because our loving God has taken every action needed to save us.

Sometimes, bad grammar can be great theology.

(Psssst. But wait. You might decide to listen to the music I’ve embedded below. And you might notice that I’ve only told half the story today. Or you might know a thing or two about theology yourself and are urgently raising your hand at your screen, hoping to add to the conversation. Good for you! You’re right. There’s more to this passive/active discussion. But for that, you’ll have to wait for my next blog post.)