How is use of the word ‘bullshit’ (particularly in the sense that Leithart used it) a violation of the seventh commandment (you know, the one about not committing adultery)? Whilst one cannot help but feel some admiration for anyone with the guts to attempt such a spectacular leap of casuistry, it seems to me that this is, in final analysis, just another pietistic imposition upon the consciences of the people of God. Such strong language is certainly not to be used lightly, but there are times when such language is precisely the language that we need to use.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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18 Responses to Huh?

  1. Mark Jones says:

    That was fast Alastair. Are you on the list? What about Leithart’s other word studies? What do you make of them?

  2. Andy Packer says:

    Not to mention that most people understand that vulgar language is not necessarily sinful. However, in this case, where it is being used in a techinical manner, it is an even more absurd claim.

    He’s using Question 139 of the Larger Catechism for his reasoning of it being a violation of the 7th commandment. – “The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment,…all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto.”

  3. Hi Alastair,
    This was, I think, directed in both of our directions. I’ll perhaps post on this later.

  4. Al says:


    I follow the list on Bloglines. I used to be on it, but left without ever commenting on it.

    I have read all of Leithart’s posts that were linked to on the list before. Most of the supposedly objectionable passages are not actually Leithart’s words, but are within quotations. It should also be noticed that Leithart is not employing these words as expletives.

    Frankly, I don’t see why there is any problem with Leithart’s posts. Webb’s attitude towards them strikes me as silly and prudish. He focuses on the words that Leithart uses and pays little attention to how he uses the words. Leithart, for example, in this post writes:

    “Make dirty words clean” – that is not only evident in the characters’ speeches to each other (Mellors has to explain the word “cunt” to Connie), but also in Lawrence’s own style, dotted with sexual vulgarities: “For Lawrence, being able to fuck warmheartedly, the redemptive act of life, is inevitably related to breaking through taboos and being able to say and think about the forbidden word with pride and joy. He is like a semantic missionary going to to save fuck from damnation and redeem it as a living word of love.” Unless he were successful, Lawrence thought, abstractions and euphemisms concerning sexual love would continue to wreak their havoc. If sex was not going to be overwhelmed in abstraction, the bodiliness, the messiness, of actual intercourse had to be admitted and celebrated.

    With Lawrence’s war on abstraction I have a great deal of sympathy. With his particular transgressive strategy I have none. One problem with Lawrence’s program was pointed out by CS Lewis in a short essay on “Prudery and Philology.” Lawrence might wish it were not so, but words do carry a freight of historical meaning that cannot simply be shed by repeating vulgarities in polite company or in artsy novels. As soon as you seek to describe the human body or sexuality in words, as opposed to rendering it in a painting or drawing, Lewis says “you will fin that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word.” In short, “willy-nilly you must produce baby-talk, or Wardour Street, or coarseness, or technical jargon. . . . The words will force you to write as if you thought it either childish, or quaint, or contemptible, or of purely scientific interest. In fact, mere description is impossible. Language forces you to an implicit comment.”

    Obscenities have their own history that cannot be dislodged without drastic effect: “It is the words, not the things, that are obscene. That is, they are words long consecrated (or desecrated) to insult, derision, and buffoonery. You cannot use them without bringing in the whole atmosphere of the slum, the barrack-room, and the public school.” Lewis admits that it may be possible for modern writers to “introduce into serious writing . . . a total liberty for the pen such as has nearly always been allowed to the pencil,” but says that they will not only violate obscenity law but “rip up the whole fabric of the mind.” It’s possible, but “the attempt is perverse.”

    The result of Lawrence’s evangelism has, of course, been less than redemptive. Instead of consecrating “fuck” and surrounding it with the whole aura of connotations associated with passionate, tender sexual love, it has demeaned all discourse about sex. It still brings with it the “whole atmosphere of the slum”; it can enter “polite society,” but the result will be to transform the latter into a slum.

    Leithart clearly isn’t advocating the use of such language in the way that many people within our society use it.

    The writers of Scripture were quite prepared to be earthy in the way that they used language. They can speak in ways that make those of us with more ‘refined’ sensitivities squirm. They speak directly about realities that many of us would like to shroud in euphemism.

    I believe that there are occasions when ‘fuck’ is the right word to use. On such occasions we should not be afraid to use it. When describing a society of sexual violence the word ‘fuck’ may well be the right word to use. I don’t believe that there are many other words that are up to the task. It is not the right word to use in 99.99% of the occasions on which it is used within our society.

    Those who know me will know that I never use such words as expletives, nor do I take pleasure in finding occasion to justify the use of such language. I try to keep my language clean. I do not want to become desensitized to such language by overusing it. However, on the rare occasions when strong language is needed I am not too prudish to say what needs to be said and to describe things as they are. I would suspect that Leithart is much the same.

    I think that the problem here is on Webb’s side. Webb is trying to be holier and wiser than God, who is quite prepared to inspire people to write about such things as pissing, shit, the genitalia of donkeys and the semen emission of horses, to write a text which speaks frankly about sexual activity, with many sexual symbols and innuendoes.

  5. The Answer Grape says:

    Oh Alright Alastair, if its all just casuistry and pietism then you won’t mind quotes like these from Leithart’s blog as they are “precisely the language we need to use”:

    While I’m on that subject: I’ve often wondered about the etymology of “fuck.”

    “Make dirty words clean” – that is not only evident in the characters’ speeches to each other (Mellors has to explain the word “cunt” to Connie), but also in Lawrence’s own style, dotted with sexual vulgarities: “For Lawrence, being able to fuck warmheartedly, the redemptive act of life, is inevitably related to breaking through taboos and being able to say and think about the forbidden word with pride and joy.

    “He could masturbate between the boy’s thighs but was not allowed to come in his mouth or to sodomize him. He was not, therefore, allowed to make him a passive partner.”

    Go to it, young man, defend Pastor Leithart’s speeches above, but as for me, if there is any such thing as what Paul called “Filthy Communication” it is the above…

  6. Al says:


    Yes, I presumed that he was using the Larger Catechism here. I don’t actually have much of a problem with the LC answer, except perhaps with the ‘entangling vows of single life’ part. And I both allow, tolerate and keep stews. I resort to them about once a fortnight, when I am bored of other meals. 🙂

  7. Mark Horne says:

    Answer grape, in the midst of a bunch of humanists (many Evangelical) holding to Greek natural law and Greek civilization (so-called) in other ways, I think that last quote from Leithart is one you should be thanking him for.

  8. Al says:


    I can’t help feeling a little bemused by this, considering that a number of my friends actually got annoyed by the fact that I don’t use expletives as they do. I am about the last person who is going to justify the proliferation of bad language. However, my resistance to prudery apparently puts me on the wrong side here!

  9. Al says:

    Answer Grape,

    I refer you to the comment that I posted just before yours.

  10. Phil says:

    I have little doubt that future generations will look back at our dark time and thankfully remember those brave cyberspace champions of orthodoxy who, like Athanasius and his iota before them, knew the importance of an asterisk.

    But…the importance is just more than I know. I’m sure that has to do with a character flaw that reaches deep into the reading portion of my brain.

    Damn original sin; When I see bullsh*t my brain reads “bullshit”. Pray for me.

    I’d love to be counted in your corner, so … me, too.

    I know it’s childish, but I just had to do something.

  11. WTM says:

    Allow me to chip in on a fine point:

    The etymology of “fuck” is a good question, but this is what I have been able to track down (through various dubious pathwasy) – It is an acronym that stands for “F.ornicating W.ithout [the] C.onsent [of the]” It was painted / burned / otherwise indicated on the exterior of a brothal in England that had been shut down (an “illegal” brothal). The “W” eventually mutated into a “U” (the term most likely developed in the Middle English period), giving us the form we know today.


  12. sam k says:


    I disagree with your argument that swear words should be used sparingly lest we become desensitized to them. It’s true — the more we use words, the more we understand them, and the less strange they seem. But you haven’t said why that’s a bad thing. Generally, I don’t see much use in the arguments that stronger meanings should be saved for special occasions. Those words came to have strong meanings quite a part from our efforts to preserve them, and poets will replace them with fresh iterations, after they become familiar to us. I don’t see that as problematic.

    Amongst those whom it does not offend, I use “coarse” language frequently in a light-hearted manner, often to great humorous effect. Why is it that a clever joke is the not an appropriate use of the word “shit”?

    Incidentally, this is another side of my argument from the thread below, it seems to me.

  13. Al says:


    I use strong words sparingly, because if I didn’t do so I would lack strong words when I needed them. The correct and judicious use of words is perhaps one of the most important skills that we have to learn (particularly when discussing theology). Careless or imprecise use of words can cause incredible mischief. Attention to the way that we use words is very important for this reason.

    Using strong language lightly depreciates the value of our language. As Marva Dawn observes, if even our washing powder is ‘awesome’, what language do we have left for God? The proliferation of superlatives and strong expletives in our society weakens our verbal arsenal and leaves us increasingly unable to speak powerfully about the things that really matter.

    I do not use strong language in jest, because I want such language to retain its full strength on my mouth. If I weigh my words carefully before speaking them my words will have a weight that they do not have on the lips of others. When people hear me use the word ‘bullshit’ I want them to know that it is not just something that I am throwing out in irritation or frustration; I really mean it and I want my reader to understand the word with all the seriousness with which I wrote it.

    I think that there might be a place for distinctions here. I am not really offended by most uses of words like ‘shit’, even though they are not ways that I would personally choose to employ the word. I think that we are often overly sensitive to honest speech about excrement. As Christians we are often far less earthy in our speech than we could, or even should, be.

    Earthiness of speech is not, however, quite the same thing as the light use of words such as ‘fuck’, which, within our culture, degrades that which God has created good.

    Relating all of this to the issues you raised in the thread below, I judge people who do not take the effort to learn how to spell correctly because those who take care over their words will tend to take care over their spelling. I believe that poor spelling manifests a carelessness and lack of concern about the proper use of words. People who do not give thought to speaking and writing with care and accuracy and employ words without due regard to their weight, corect use and spelling are dangerous in the context in which we find ourselves, where so many of the debates that we find ourselves boil down to laziness and lack of concern in the use of words.

  14. Paul Baxter says:


    I’m not up for tracking down references right now, but my understanding is that the word in question is actually one of the older words in the English language and originally meant “to bang”. Just two things hitting each other. Sexual uses of it probably also occurred pretty early as well.

    I don’t know the origin of the story you brought up, but I’m quite sure that that was a later joke or explanation of a particular cultural situation or something like that. Someone probably thought themselves quite clever to have come up with that acronym.

    Just as an aside, I had a conversation recently with an Italian rennaisance scholar, one particularly interested in the history of books. He let me flip through his pre-Gutenburg Bible 🙂 Anyhow, he confirmed what I already knew, which was that filthy books were quite common in the pre-victorian era. I imagine pudery has been around for quite a while, but it was never particularly ascendent until the 19th C.

  15. garver says:

    I suspect this will end up misconstrued by someone, but it seems to me to be the truth: there is a certain degree of irony in the criticism of Leithart’s artcles, given the nature of the quarters from which the criticism you cite emerges.

    According to the Larger Catechism (Q&A 145), sins of the tongue include (among others):

    “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end…speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling…misconstructing intentions, words, and actions…unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion…”

    Some of these sins appear to me not only prevalent in my ecclesiastical corner of the world, but also to be worn by some (even pastors) as badges of piety. Not only do churches fail to censure such sin, they positively reward it, even granting positions of authority and outlets for further speaking and writing to those who engage in it.

    This is a large part of why I’ve stopped blogging. I’ve just been so discouraged, ashamed, and disgusted by many individuals and structures within my own theological tradition, it seems almost useless even to try to engage with others in a public forum anymore.

    Maybe that’s just February and seasonal affective blues talking, but that’s where I find myself these days.

  16. Al says:

    The latest post on the Warfield list is a little more balanced.

  17. Andy Packer says:

    Your comment on “stews” was excellent. I can’t stop laughing. Someone should claim that as an exception to the catechism at a Presbytery Exam.

  18. Christopher Witmer says:

    In Rev. Webb’s case, the topic of Leithart’s post came too close for comfort: he is full of it.

    And, he is being a priss and a bit of a pharisee.

    I find it interesting that variants of the term in question can be found quite easily by searching at A Puritan’s Mind. “Bull-honkey”, “bull—-“, “load of bull”, “That answer is bull$#@+!”, “Deja Moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bull before”, “bull detector”, “bull—- alarm”, “Bull ****”, “those of you who support this theological bull should be ashamed”, etc.

    Here is a discussion of the very book in question, which was edited so as not to offend the weaker brethren:

    And here is a discussion of cussing which is also interesting:

    Why is it that these guys have no problem with:

    but not

    What’s with the asterisk?

    Reminder to the escort agency: next time you send a stripper over to the Warfield List, make sure she keeps on her tassels and G-string.

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