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A Lesson from the “Oxford Comma”

Okay, I own up! The tag-line under the site title above—“A Blog About Theology, Thinking, Reading, Writing, and Teaching”—does have an “Oxford comma,” aka the “serial comma.”

The “Oxford comma” is the comma placed before the word “and” in a list of three or more items for the purpose of clarification. The “Grammarly Blog” offers this humorous example of its merit:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

As written, see, that sentence could be understood to say that “Lady Gaga” and “Humpty Dumpty” are the speaker’s parents! The meaning isn’t plain! But the simple insertion of an Oxford comma clears it up (unless, of course, the speaker’s parents really are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty):

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

Ah! Better! However, much more than a humorous misunderstanding may be on the line. In 2018, a multi-million dollar lawsuit was actually won by employees against their company on the basis of an absent Oxford comma in Maine’s overtime law. So, missing punctuation may not only yield comical results, but lead to costly consequences.

So what am I arguing for here? Precision and clarity!

Take or leave the “Oxford comma” as you see fit as long as your message is precise and clear! The bane of much biblical-theological discussion and debate these days is pervasive imprecision and murkiness, generality and incoherence, and simply the fear of drawing lines because line-drawing is so unpopular.

When I was in seminary, I had Dr. Craig Blaising for a course in Advanced Systematic Theology. It was terrifying! It was also one of the best courses I had, because Dr. Blaising not only taught us theology (content) but how to do theology (method). And one of the core pieces of good theological method, he insisted, is precision and clarity—a point he demonstrated decisively over the course of the semester by using our lack of precision and clarity to drive each of us at last into one ancient heresy or another. So …

Define! Qualify! Divide! Compare and contrast! Expound! Illustrate! Draw lines—thick and heavy and hard—when needed! And, yes, even use an Oxford comma! Only be sure to do whatever it takes to be precise and clear in your own studies and especially as you teach, preach, and share the biblical gospel!