How the internet is weakening our language

Recovering a rich vocabulary for a deeper knowledge of God

October 16, 2019

The statistics are truly astounding. American adults are now spending more than 11 hours a day consuming media. This includes reading, watching, listening to, and interacting with media. Four of the 11 hours are spent with their digital best friend, a smart phone or a tablet. And 21% of adults say they are constantly on the “digital leash.” Forty-five percent of teens say their eyes are always glued to their phones. On average, young people spend nearly nine hours online per day.   

The internet and our language  

What impact is this exposure having on our language, specifically language that can comprehensively communicate who God is and who we are? We know it is affecting our minds negatively. But what about our linguistic toolkit?  

The internet perpetuates three language cripplers: slang, distraction, and simplicity.   

Slang. It has been a part of people’s speech habits for centuries. It is quite appropriate in the right setting—usually an informal one. When to use slang, however, is becoming less obvious. Early research and anecdotal evidence reveals this. Tech slang, such as tonite, summin’, BTW, and ur, are found regularly in students’ written assignments. As well, slang has seeped into the Christian culture: in sermons, worship songs, on t-shirts, and the like. When speaking about the things of God, slang cannot haul the theological payload of the Bible with its trailer’s limited capacity.  

Distraction. Online data analytics show people spend very little time on a webpage, and those who begin reading an article are few with an even fewer number who finish reading it. This is not surprising because the majority of web pages are visual beehives. Websites are populated with click-bait, sidebar video, and pop-ups that zap any inclination to concentrate on one item. Naturally, rich, substantive language is not the choice du jour since the main goal is drive up website traffic. Furthermore, distraction acclimates the mind to be in need of constant change and enticement—a detriment to meditation, scripture memory, and study.   

Simplicity. Online strategists need to wrangle a viewer’s attention quickly, and to do that big vocabulary words are not conducive. A simple vocabulary often “rules the day.” As well, simple language characterizes many emails. The tool has made communication easier, but it frequently requires less mental effort and less time in crafting this digital postcard. The two can tend to cannibalize each other and shrink our linguistic framework—what we don’t use, we lose. The atrophy is evidenced, in one way, by the lack of rich language and imagery in many worship songs produced and desired by churches.   Why should we care about how robust or not-so-robust our language is? Because our souls benefit from it. A rich vocabulary is the vehicle by which the “meat” of the Word is delivered (Heb. 5:13-14, KJV).    

Biblical vocabulary  

The Bible contains rich vocabulary that greatly assists in knowing the Lord deeper.  Terms such as propitiation and transgression are prime examples. These words take the believer deep into the knowledge of God. For instance, sin is the common term used to describe disobedience to God. One may be tempted to think transgression is a synonym for sin. On the contrary, the two terms communicate two different sides of disobedience. In Hebrew, sin communicates the nature of disobedience. It means missing a goal or an intention—not glorifying God with one’s body or mind, which is the goal for which we were created.   

On the other hand, transgression literally means rebel or revolt. It provides more insight about one’s disobedience. It communicates the war-like motivation for disobedience. We do not disobey God because we lack the skills to glorify him; we disobey because we desire to revolt against his authority. The word sin does not convey this dimension.   

How is this linguistic knowledge helpful? One is able to see the severity of every act of disobedience from murder to grumbling to gossiping. They are all indicators of an active rebellion against the Almighty revealed in the purposeful negligence of reaching the goals of holiness set forth by God.  

Depth of vocabulary   

In addition to knowing the vocabulary of the Bible, it is also most helpful to have a depth of vocabulary knowledge. Depth of vocabulary is knowing a word’s different relations to other words in the text’s lexicon, which includes a word’s synonym, antonym, and its hyponymous status.   

Having this knowledge enables a Christian to understand in a more complete manner a term such as propitiation. Propitiation means a wrath-bearing substitute. Penal substitution is often a synonym for propitiation. Christ is a believer’s wrath-bearing substitute. He endured on the cross for the Church all of her collective eternal condemnation, and condemnation is one of propitiation’s antonyms. So, if one knows the meaning and weight of God’s condemnation, propitiation’s glory is seen more in its fullness than it was before.   

In regards to a word’s hyponymous status, this aspect assists the reader in understanding the context being used. The root word, hyponym, means “a term that denotes a subcategory of a more general class.” Propitiation is a hyponym of the judicial system. All are familiar with a country’s judicial system. Felons receive serious to severe sentences for their crimes and are never provided a propitiation by the presiding judge. God does, however. Hopefully, you can see how possessing this type of knowledge is not only for the good of vocational Bible teachers, but also for the good of the rest of us. A Christian’s personal Bible study becomes more fruitful, more transformative.    

Literary devices 

Another rich aspect of language is literary devices, and the Bible is brimming with them: metaphors, similes, paradoxes, personifications, synecdoches, metonymies, and more. Consider paradox, for example. It is a presumed contradiction that is actually valid. A familiar paradox is “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12-13). In other words, do the work even though, technically, you are not doing the work. God is, through you. In a mysterious manner, our thinking is greatly aided by the Spirit’s power.   

The point may be lost, however, on one who does not understand the nature of paradoxes. For the one who recognizes the device being used, he will strive to discern the text’s meaning because he recognizes Paul is communicating a truth in a unique way. Literary devices stop a reader in one’s tracks and push one to think deliberately about what has just been read.  

In light of living in the land of ones and zeroes, the Christian Church must remind herself of language’s scope in order to speak and write of God in “penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways.” The Church must also guard against her linguistic framework being down-sized by technology. She must spearhead a linguistic renaissance, where needed, if her souls are to be enlarged with the knowledge of God. For a small language cannot handle a massive God.   

*This article was adapted from a larger piece, “The Current American-English Vernacular: Lightweight Language for a Heavyweight God.”

Tim Scheiderer

Tim Scheiderer (M.Div, Southern Seminary) is a freelance writer living in metro Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter. His other writings can be found at TPScheiderer.com. He is also a founding board member of The Augustine Center, a Christian Study Center at Georgetown University. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24