Rules and Paradigms: Another look at prescriptive grammar

Way back at the start of this series, I talked about the difference between descriptive grammar, which discusses a language as it is, and prescriptive grammar, which discusses a language (someone says) it should be. While prescriptive grammar is often — and rightly — maligned for being artificial (for example, English speakers have been splitting infinitives ever since splitting infinitives was possible, so it’s hard to know on what grounds someone could credibly argue that to do so is ‘bad’ English), they have their place. World languages spoken by hundreds of millions of people, like English, French, Arabic, Spanish, or Mandarin, would simply be impossible without them. Prescriptive grammar is the centripetal force that keeps the centrifugal forces of differences of distance (historical and geographic), education, gender, and class from breaking one language up into many. This means that I can read a book from the eighteenth century or talk to someone in Australia and be able to understand what is being said. And that’s no small thing.

When it comes to religious belief, prescriptive grammar is the realm of creeds, canon, and dogma. These things are helpful in providing a shared understanding for a faith community, of demarcating its boundaries, and deciding on the content of its teaching. As with any discussion of boundaries, great care needs to be taken to ensure they are placed in the right spot, neither too loose — rendering claim to a common faith meaningless — nor too restrictive — cutting a community off from ideas that may be true under closer examination and from the people of good faith who hold them. 

Throughout Christian history we see a wide range of different attitudes and propensities towards a prescriptive approach to faith. 

My own Anglican tradition has historically been on the loose end of the spectrum: it’s had official statements of faith (both shared statements like the Nicene and Apostles Creeds and its own, such as the 39 Articles), but these have rarely been enforced and have been interpreted quite differently by Anglicans throughout the centuries. This means that it is a broad theological tradition, housing within it evangelicals, catholics, charismatics, old-style liberals, and contemporary progressives (who are, in fact, largely creed-affirming), but that it’s lived with fuzzy boundaries for a long time. And so to say you are Anglican provides little information about what it is you actually believe. One consequence of this lack of boundaries is that it makes it hard to move forward with any sort of theological consensus. For example, the recent (and protracted) debates on changing the marriage canon to make provisions for same-sex marriages within our church in Canada has been complicated by the fact that our church contains a wide range of beliefs on such things as the role of Scripture, the number and nature of the sacraments, and the way the structures of the Church should work together. Without such shared starting points, it’s very difficult to walk a common road. 

On the other extreme are churches like the Roman Catholic Church, whose book of official church dogma runs about 850 pages, and certain evangelical sects, who have prescribed positions on such specifics as biblical interpretation, gender relations, and the sequencing of eschatological events. 

Lutheran, Calvinist, and Eastern Orthodox churches fall somewhere in between, touting only a handful of dogmas but using them as genuine markers of community identity. Even here, though, we might observe a difference in attitude towards dogmas, as the Confessions of the Reformation were more about creating a blueprint for correct faith, whereas the dogmatic statements of the East tend to be more about fencing off the Church from ideas it deems insufficient or problematic. (To put it simply, the Reformation confessions tell you to play in the playground; the ancient Orthodox statements largely tell you to stay out of the woods.)

As helpful as prescriptive approaches to religion can be in forming and strengthening community identity and providing a shared language for understanding, they do raise some big questions. Any time we see a rule or law put into place we have to ask: Whose rule is it? Who is setting the boundary and on what grounds? Where does their authority come from? Who benefits from it? And, Who does it exclude? As much as we want to believe that faith communities always have the best intentions in creating their rules, things are rarely that simple.

Back in my more prescriptive days, I was very concerned with Truth Claims and the authority of Scripture. But the more Scripture I read, the more I came to see how complicated and slippery even “the plain sense of Scripture” can be. (Even something as simple as “the love of God” can have several different — even opposite — literal interpretations!) As I came to understand more and more the complexities of interpretation, as I was washed up on the rocks of different traditions, and as I was exposed to the interpretations of marginalized communities — interpretations that often made the text sing in a way what I had thought was the plain sense did not — I realized I needed to take my interpretations and my truth claims with a giant grain of salt. And I came to agree with Jesus that the only real judge of an idea is the fruit that it bears (Matthew 7.15-20).

Again, as much as we want to believe that the powers that be make their decisions about dogma out of a commitment to faithfulness to God and to the truth as it “seems good to them and to the Holy Spirit,” it’s historically inarguable that dogma and power are deeply connected. It’s no accident that the Ecumenical Councils started when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its preferred and then official religion. Nor is it an accident that the Anglican tradition — theologically lax as it may have been — adopted rules of liturgical conformity as England forged a global Empire. Nor is it an accident that the statements of faith of many evangelical groups became more restrictive in response both to changing social mores and evangelicals’ sudden interest in politics and cultural power. (As hard as it is to believe now, a hundred years ago it was Mainline Protestants who ruled conservative politics and evangelicals who were preaching social justice!) 

My point here isn’t that prescriptive approaches to religion are bad, but to recognize that a) discerning truth is more complicated than we often think it is; and b) religious groups and their rules are often caught up in the same human nonsense (also known as “sin”) as every other human institution.

In response to this, I wonder if a helpful approach to understanding the proper role of prescriptive statements in religious communities is less as rules to follow than as paradigms to guide. In language, paradigms are regular patterns through which words are formed and change form. (For example, the classic Latin verb endings of -o, -s, -t, -mus, -te, -nt form a paradigm that makes reading Latin easier than if you had to learn every form a verb could take individually.) But anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that while paradigms are very helpful, very few words fit the patterns perfectly — most words are ‘irregular’ in some way. Paradigms are helpful descriptive tools of what generally happens, but are rarely statements about what must happen. At the same time, the irregularities that inevitably occur are rarely actually random or even unpredictable, but usually have historical rationale or are governed by some contextual factor that, when taken into account, actually erases the surface irregularity. 

I think this is a helpful approach to understanding dogma because it allows for both regularity and irregularity (whether real or just in appearance), similarity and difference, to coexist within a system. It’s a humbler approach that walks our dogmatic statements back from “Thus saith the Lord” to “all else being equal….” In a sense, it combines the practical ‘realness’ of descriptive approaches with the community-building and boundary-marking benefits of prescriptive approaches.

There is of course much more that could be said about all this, but this is as good a place as any to leave off. If you are a part of a faith community and would like to think through these issues more, consider investigating what official statements of faith does your community have? Where do they come from? What are the main issues they try to address? How closely does your community stick to them? Who might they serve? And who might they exclude?

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