Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Meaning of Words, Part II

In the previous post (The Meaning of Words, Part I) I addressed the contemporary problem of subjective (emotion driven) religion, and how this is impacting much of Christendom today. Particularly in the matter of our speech, such subjectivism has the tendency to exalt one's own intentions, thoughts, and feelings over the objective realities of language and communication. Therefore, my own thoughts and feelings do not modify the innate meaning of words; even though they might affect the impact that such words have on others (as in the illustration of a heartless husband who professes to love his wife). But in the previous post, we focused on the idea of unwholesome words, noting that Paul was not only concerned about our subjective motives when speaking,[1] but he was also concerned about the very words that we use;[2] understanding that some things should never pass the lips of God's children.[3] In such textual examples as these, we must admit that Paul is speaking of language that is expressly secular, rather than biblical, otherwise we would have to conclude that there are some aspects of Scripture that should never be repeated - may it never be (2 Timothy 3:16)! This distinction is, I believe, important, especially if we are to learn about how we can properly season our speech with the salt of genuine wisdom.[4] The Scriptures themselves offer the Christian a very real anchor to all reality and meaning in life; without which, we have no real "salt" to season our speech. We as Christians, of all people, should be the most cautious about such matters, knowing that the weapons of our warfare are powerful for the tearing down of the false fortresses of this world's thoughts, words, and ideas:

2 Corinthians 10:3-5: 3. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4. for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ

So what exactly are the building materials employed by the world against the knowledge of God? It is logismous - faulty reasoning/speculations and hupsoma epairomenon - lofty expressions of arrogance. And what divinely powerful weaponry did the Apostle Paul use to tear down such fortresses? - the knowledge of God as supplied in His word - the sword of the Spirit.[5] The Christian must never underestimate the importance of Scripture and scriptural language - even down to the last iota and keraia. Without the sword of the Spirit (in all of its precious detail) our words are reduced to dull and useless instruments; but with the whole counsel of God's word (in all of it precious detail) we have a substantial means of engaging this world.

Which leads me to this matter of the careful use of Scriptural language: having been raised in southern California, I am reminded of the frequent habit of young people who use the word righteous as a synonym for the word cool. Even the word awesome is also used in this vein. Such casual and trite usage of these words is degrading to their root meanings and identities. A Toyota vehicle may be an impressive piece of machinery, but it is not awesome (awe/fear inspiring) per se.[6] Actually, the misuse of such an important biblical term often exposes a kind of hapless admission to materialistic worship. Obviously, the world uses language in often base and useless ways, and it frequently invokes the Lord's name in vain as further proof of its disregard for God-centered discourse. But as the children of God, we must not follow the world's lead - even if it feels "cool" and "hip." The theological shock-jocks of the modern day are not helping us in this matter, especially when they venture outside the beauty and purity of Scripture. Neither profanity, ambiguous/shocking statements, or poetic pithiness should ever serve to supplant the clear and perspicuous message of Scripture, because the art and thought of man is no match for God’s eternal truth. Let me illustrate this matter as follows: I often use the expression - godly jealousy in order to describe my zeal for the priority of the Gospel. Now I ask the reader: Is this a meaningful expression? Am I being a theological shock-jock by using such language, and should a Christian ever be "jealous" since James says "...you are envious [zeloute - jealous] and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel" - which is exactly what we see when the Jews of Thessalonica became jealous [zelosantes] and formed an angry mob against the Christians?[7] As well, since God declares Himself to be a jealous God who shares His glory with no one,[8] am I at liberty to use such a word for myself as an expression of godly affections? The principal reason why my answer is yes is because the Apostle Paul himself used this expression in order to convey his godly zeal for those within the Corinthian church who were being led astray by false teachers.[9] In fact, the use of such a biblical expression affords me the opportunity to explain myself from the text of Scripture such that the hearer is led away from what could become my theology to that of God and His truth.

Now, how about the word lust? Would it be scripturally meaningful to employ the word lust - maybe godly lust - in order to describe an earnest desire for something good? Answer: no. While I have never heard a theologian try to foist the expression godly lust into the shock-jock lexicon, I offer it here as a generic illustration for your consideration (and perhaps to preempt any future attempts for someone to do so). In the English, the word lust converges to this idea of sinful and self-centered affection. As it is used in English translations of the Bible, there is no use of the word lust in connection with godly desire. For someone to try to use such a term for its shock value, as in the case of godly lust, I would suggest that they are pointedly disparaging scripturally grounded word meanings in order to draw some form of attention. But James reminds his audience: "...you lust[10] and do not have; so you commit murder..." (James 4:2). And why is this so? Go back to James’ initial query: "What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures[11] that wage war in your members?" (James 4:1). According to James, human lust is rooted our selfish, self-centered pleasures, not godliness. When people hear the English word lust, there should be no ambiguity in their understanding of the term. Should we misuse the term at all, we produce a form of confusion that should not at all exist. When Scriptural language is clear and consistent, we dull the blade of Holy Writ through a misuse of such important terms. And while such tactics may garner the attention of others, we must ask the question: who is ultimately getting that attention?

I believe that the principle at hand is simple enough: whenever we speak, we must measure our affections and words very carefully. As well, whenever we employ terms that are specifically rooted in scriptural language we should be careful to preserve the meaning of such words, rather than allow them to degrade within the acidity of secularism or an instructional method which exalts form over substance. It is my fear that, generationally speaking, those who seek out and admire the theological shock-jocks of today, will look to surpass their mentors over time. This is a common pattern repeatedly seen within church history: like a ship that is off-course by just one degree, we cannot expect it to reach its transatlantic destination. Rather than belittling a one-degree departure from sound teaching, we should seek to retain a true course lest we influence others away from a path that is in fact called by our Savior - narrow.

We all misspeak at times,[12] and our vocabulary will continue to be refined and transformed[13] as the Lord sanctifies us in His word; but the direction that we must seek is one which presses back to the ancient anchor of Holy Writ, rather than towards this ever-changing and dying world. May the Lord season our speech for our good and His ultimate glory.


[1] Eph. 4:15, 25.
[2] Eph. 4:29.
[3] Eph. 5:12.
[4] Colossians 4:6: 6. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
[5] Eph. 6:17/
[6] In Scripture God's name, deeds, and judgment are called, appropriately, awesome.
[7] 1 Corinthians 13:4: 4. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant,
[8] Exodus 20:3-5.
[9] 2 Corinthians 11:1-4.
[10] G. epithumea: This word can be used for either lust or godly desire, depending on the context. However, the English word lust does not share such variance of meaning, especially as it is used in English translations of the Bible.
[11] G. hedonen: This word is used exclusively in the Scriptures to speak of ungodly and selfish desires: Titus 3:3, James 4:1, 3; Luke 8:14, 2 Peter 2:13.
[12] James 3:2-3.
[13] Romans 12:1-2.