I am ultimately a “Bible guy” on the “God Squad,” as some people think of me. But I am just fascinated by how Christians, and my fellow evangelicals, in particular, get stuck on the meanings of words, as they make their way from the pages of the Sacred Text, through voices of preachers in the pulpit, to the average Christian, who is trying to figure out what the Bible is all about. Even more fascinating is how various interpretations of the Bible, that are hinged upon key words, get morphed over time, without people completely realizing it. Barfield is a great companion here, to work these thoughts out, in this introduction to his thought, History in English Words.
Take the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” To conserve, as in conserving or preserving a tradition, is pretty straight forward. To be liberal, or to liberate, is to set free, or to discard a tradition, is well known. But most of the time, we use these type of words as pejoratives, to identify parties or viewpoints we do not like.
Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings, in company with friend C.S. Lewis, writes about the history behind the adoption of the predecessor words to “conservative” and “liberal,” namely “tory” and “whig,” respectively (History of English Words, p.73-74).
“Spite, which always loves a rich vocabulary, is also the father of those venerable labels tory and whig. The old Celtic word tory was first applied in the seventeenth century to the unfortunate Irish Catholics, dispossessed by Cromwell, who became savage outlaws living chiefly upon plunder; after that it was used for some time of bandits in general, and at the close of James II’s reign the ‘Exclusioners’ found it a conveniently offensive nickname for those who favored the succession of the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York. Thus, when William of Orange finally succeeded in reaching the throne, it became the approved name of one of the two great political parties in Great Britain. Whig is shortened of whiggamore , a name given to certain Scotchmen from the word whiggam, which they used in driving their horses. It was first used of the rebellious Scottish Covenanters who march to Edinburgh in 1648; then of the Exclusioners, who were opposed to the accession of James; and finally, from 1689 onwards, of the other great political party or one of its adherents.”
Lewis himself observes that the terms conservative and liberal came to replace tory and whig, having been born into a political context. Along with the terminology of conservative and liberal came the use of right and left.
In the summer of 1789, France had its revolution, only 14 years after the American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain. That summer, the French were divided amongst themselves as to what to do with the French monarchy, which had become an unmanageable form of government under King Louis XVI, burdened by overwhelming financial debt. When the French National Assembly met to draft a constitution, different parties gathered together in the room, according to their sympathies.
The meeting of the famous Tennis Court Oath, when French leaders met on a tennis court, standing on one side of the tennis net, as opposed to the other, gives a visual picture of when “right” and “left” got embedded in the Western consciousness. Those who favored a constitutional form of monarchy, much like the British system, gathered on the right side of the room. Those who favored dismantling the traditional monarchy, advocating a more egalitarian form of governance, gathered on the left side of the room. The language of right wing and left wing has been with us ever since.
Eventually, such political language entered the theological arena, whereby conservatives on the right would hold to a more traditional view of Scripture and Bible doctrine, and liberals on the left would reject such tradition. Among evangelicals today, the use of the word “liberal” is tantamount to questioning a person’s theological orthodoxy. Alternatively, to be a “conservative” theologically is considered to be a good thing, as the surrounding Western culture continues to be ripped from its traditional, Judeo-Christian moorings. But when and if such “conservatism” is perceived to be reactionary, or otherwise ill-advised, we often hear more pejorative sounding words used to describe one’s theology, like the word “fundamentalist.”
What a shift from the older meanings that these words once possessed! To be “conservative” was once understood to be something noble, conserving those traditions which were indeed truly good. To be “liberal” was to contend for freedom, one of the greatest virtues found in the Bible, as in, for the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
I am just as guilty here as the next person, but in C.S. Lewis’ masterful work, Studies in Words, p.7-8, the great Oxford don nails it:
“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . . and to end up by being purely evaluative– useless synonyms for good or for bad.”
I see this type of verbicide happening all of the time among Christians, including myself. I will use a word like awesome, simply to say that I like something, which is hardly what awesome meant some thirty years ago, in normal speech. To create a sense of awe, or reverence, about something or someone, is what awesome has typically meant for years. Nowadays, awesome has become almost a throw-away word, used to describe how good that hamburger tasted, that you just ate for lunch.
But among fellow Christians, the problem seems like an epidemic. Some believers insist on the literal interpretation of Scripture, when it is clear that literal merely has an inflationary characteristic, that Lewis identifies back in 1960, when he wrote Studies in Words. It is found in the common colloquialism of “it is literally raining cats and dogs out there!” Surely, no one believes that your neighbor’s siamese cat and yellow labrador just landed on your front lawn. No, it simply means that it is raining really, really, really hard.
Verbicide. We have killed the word literally.
We have turned the word literally into something not literal at all. Or to recall the previous blog post, whereby we discovery that metaphors can become so stable, that they can actually become new words. Just think of the word concrete, which in construction lingo, refers to a mixture of cement and sand, and other materials. But it could also have a metaphorical meaning, abstracted away from its construction context, to mean something that is firm or stable itself….. You know, something concrete.
Then there is that old discussion about inerrancy. For some, inerrancy is an affirmation that Scripture is the Christian’s authority. Why would you submit to something as your authority, if you lack the confidence that it is without error? A humble posture of obedience to the teachings of Scripture is predicated on the assumption that you accept the Bible to be true. This is the reason why inerrancy, which affirms the truthfulness of Scripture, is so important.
However, often inerrancy gets spun around to say, “My interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, and your interpretation is not!” So, two Christians can both hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, but if one Christian does not agree with an interpretation of a particular passage, that another Christian holds to, in good conscience, sometimes they might pull out the charge that the other Christian is denying the inerrancy of the Bible.
Note, however, I am not saying that inerrancy is not a useful word. I still firmly believe that it is. You can have a correct interpretation of a particular Bible passage, but still refuse to submit to it, if you fail to trust the Bible as God’s True Word. Affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is the first step, but not the last step. We still need to learn how to interpret Scripture correctly. Hopefully, this makes sense and is clear.
So, what I am saying is that when a word like inerrancy gets transformed from Lewis’ descriptive sense; that is, describing the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, as in the classic usage, to Lewis’ more evaluative sense; that is, “your interpretation of the Bible is bad; therefore, you must be denying the inerrancy of the Bible,” then we have pretty much committed verbicide, thus rendering inerrancy as being an ineffective word.
And that is not good. It is not helpful. But that is what we do.
People of the Word can do some crazy things with words.
If you poke around on social media, whether it be following Twitter, reading Facebook posts, or in the worst possible case, that absolute scourge of the online era, reading YouTube video comments…. I find it to be a terribly depressing display of how Christians can commit verbicide, without much reflective thought. Why some people, even followers of Christ, would resort to such incoherent and even vitriolic language you find online, that they would never-ever-ever use in face-to-face to conversation, is simply appalling. But as the era of using social media has now pretty much become the norm, I am now starting to hear to such abusive talk, by the murder of words, ranging from comments given at a Bible study, to everyday face-to-face conversation with another believer…. And much of this we pick up from the world around us, particularly from our social media habits.
If I were the Pope, and we still had one organized church body, I would instigate a ban on all Christians writing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video comments, or at least impose a 24-hour cooling off period, before a Christian types out a response to something they have seen or read online, with threats of immediate excommunication, in order to stop the madness.
If I was smart enough, I would just stop right here….. But please indulge me a few more paragraphs to gripe a bit more about the problem with verbicide….. Otherwise, you can stop now, and enjoy the rest of your day….
Here is a classic example as to why I never simply assume what someone means anymore when they use particular words, particularly when it comes to social media: What grieves me these days is watching what has happened to something like the word gay. In the 1890s, it meant describing someone who was “happy.” Any sexual flavor to the word was simply unknown.
In popular culture, this meaning was preserved even in the opening credits of the 1960s Flintstones cartoon, “we’ll have a gay old time!”
That practice shifted, however, somewhere in my lifetime.
Thirty years ago, and for some of us, still today, gay means to describe the experience of persons, who find themselves with some sort of disposition of being sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. To be gay does not necessarily mean being sexually active, though that is possible. It generally applies to describing someone’s sexual orientation, which may or may not be immutable, but that typically does not change for most people, who think of themselves as gay.
Sure, there are reports that one’s sexual orientation may change over time, but such reports are rarely common. Being gay is more of an internal struggle, as indicating that one’s experience of sexual attraction, is outside of the norm. To be gay, in this sense, is a product of the Fall, but it is not an indication of any particular moral failure, on the part of the person who has this disposition, if they do not act on this disposition, either in thought or deed. To be gay, therefore, only becomes sin when one is tempted to act upon such desire, and succumb to that temptation, either through imaginative lust, or by actually participating in a sexual relationship.
Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the church’s response towards those who say that they are gay has been to try to get them to become heterosexual. But the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. Rather, the goal is holiness.
As a result of this misstep in the church, over time, the language of being gay has evolved for some, to be a type of descriptor of someone’s ontological identity. This shift has become sharply pronounced and accelerated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of merely describing a person’s experience of sexual attraction, the use of the word gay goes deeper than describing personal experience of sexual attraction, as it has come to describe “who I am, as a person,” for someone who thinks of themselves as gay.
I do not personally know of anyone who consciously thinks of themselves as being gay like this, but clearly I do hear about it. Surely, as contemporary culture continues to raise awareness of “LGBTQ” concerns, the word gay is more and more used, in the media, as indicating a type of social or political identity, implying the active expression of same-sex erotic activity.
My concern is that in response, many Christians then take this word, gay, also in a morally evaluative sense. To be gay, therefore, has no place in God’s divine purposes, even indirect, and therefore not good, in any way, shape, or form. If someone’s experience of same-sex attraction persists, then many Christians believe that there must be something awfully wrong with that person’s faith.
What a shift from the 1890s, the 1960s, or even the 1980s.
Acknowledging the experience of being gay, as a product of the Fall, is insufficient, for some Christians. To the one who holds such deep suspicions, the language of gay must be rejected at every point, for the believing Christian. “Gay” and “celibate” are inherently contradictory, despite any effort at explanation and precise definition.
A excellent example of this type of preference of one term, “same-sex attracted” against another similar term, “gay,” to describe the experience of some Christians, who nevertheless hold to the traditional view of marriage, as being exclusively between a man and a woman, can be found in a 2019 resolution among Southern Baptists.
I am an advocate for ministries, like Celebrate Recovery, where Christian people gather together, and confide with one another that they are “recovering or sober alcoholics,” and the like. Granted, there is a danger here. For it might be misconstrued, that to describe one’s self as a “recovering or sober alcoholic” is an unfortunate means of “identifying” with your sin, instead of trusting fully with Christ, as the very center and grounding of one’s identity. All sin is sin, so we should not major on the particularities. Christ and Christ alone is and should be our sole identity. I totally get that.
However, there is also an equally important danger going too far in the other direction. The aversion to using the language of a “recovering or sober alcoholic” might lead one to think that one’s particular experience, wrestling against a particular tendency towards a particular sin, might cause us to downplay the particularities of a person’s struggle. In other words, I am concerned that there might come a day when is it no longer permissible to self-describe oneself as an “alcoholic,” in this manner, because it inherently implies a morally evaluative status.
But this would be wrong-headed. For the best way for an “alcoholic” to make their journey towards recovery, is by finding support among other “recovering alcoholics.” There can be some overlap with “recovering pornography addicts” or “recovering gambling addicts,” but the experiences are nevertheless still different. Someone with a gambling addiction is not always the best person to help someone with an alcohol problem. A recovering alcoholic can only offer limited assistance to someone who suffers from chronic overeating.
I suggest, we should not shy away from talking about the unique aspects of one’s experience with unique sanctification struggles, for fear of “over-identifying” with something apart from Christ. Sadly, I believe that the Southern Baptist 2019 resolution can lead some towards this type of unhealthy shyness.
What makes the 2019 resolution so bizarre is that Celebrate Recovery, with its goal of helping people with their “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” had its genesis in a Southern Baptist church.
What a frustrating thing it is, to have a conversation with someone, thinking you are talking about the same thing, only to realize that the goalposts have been moved on you, and you discover that you can not even agree on the basic terms of the conversation.
Perhaps it is because I do not watch television any more, on a regular basis, that I notice these things. Perhaps it is due to the way Facebook, and other means of social media exchange, take place in an online world. But it really bothers me to see so many, otherwise earnest Christians falling into these changing patterns of thinking and expression. And, if I am honest, it probably influences me in such subtle ways that I am not even aware of it.
Alas. We as Christians follow the ways of the world without thinking carefully and clearly, just as Lewis observed.
Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: language is changing, and these days, in the era of social media, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. But sadly, Christians can easily get stuck in certain language patterns, without realizing it, that can make effective communication exceedingly difficult.
Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.
Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).
The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.
Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.
But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”
As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.
To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.
A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.
What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.
…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.
I have been reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, and it has some amazing insights into how language changes.
By way of introduction, consider the cartoon above, about “thinking outside of the box.” Today, “thinking outside of the box” is thought of as a virtue. It suggests getting outside of one’s traditional, conceptual world, and considering a larger context for thought. The adage is promoted all over the English-speaking world, ranging from staff development training sessions in corporations, to our political discussions, and in how we think about our view of the world more broadly.
But is it really possible to completely “think outside of the box?” Or is it more accurate to say that humans who uphold such a virtue are really just jumping from one box into another box, merely fooling themselves that they are somehow above the “boxes” that others impose on them? What about the boxes we all impose on ourselves, without realizing it? What happens when you think you are “thinking outside of the box,” only to eventually discover yourself living inside some other box?
The age of the “Enlightenment,” or what some call “modernity,” represents that period in Western history when science developed in ways unimagined heretofore. Now, there have always been Christians, like myself, who believe that science and faith go hand-in-hand with one another, or at the very least, say that science and faith are not at war with one another. But the rise of science, and along with it, the more metaphysically-minded belief of scientism, has had a massive influence on how the English language has changed over just the past few centuries, as scientism leans towards having a more ideological focus, intent on supplanting Christianity…. as though scientism seeks to “think outside of the box” of Christianity.
For example, Barfield in his chapter on Mechanism (p.183-200) notes that the practice of adding the tag of “-ism” to an end of the word, as in scientism, is a modern development, indicating a change in how modern people have a more “contemplative attitude towards all we ourselves do and feel and think,” as Barfield framed it. Perhaps this is because we live in a world that is so captivated by science, along with the accoutrements of technology, with our washing machines, and other labor-saving devices, with our cell phones and Google, all affording us the time and energy to be more contemplative, at least for some. We then take something like science, and give it a more ideological component, by adding the “-ism” tag to the ending of the word. Also, there is the word feminine, which gives us now the related feminism, as well as the word human, and its modern related humanism. The list can go on.
Then there is the whole trend towards the secular, in an attempt to marginalize the spiritual. The growth of scientism has enabled the popularity of words like determinism, as a secular alternative to the word predestination, allowing one to speak of such things without the theological assumptions of the latter.
The practice of prepending “self-” to a whole variety of words, is in particular a product of the Enlightenment, as with words like self-acceptance, self-respect and self-help. You never had self-help books written prior to 19th century, but we are completely overwhelmed with the self-help genre in books today.
The word pious once meant describing someone as devout and spiritually faithful. Now it has the connotation of feeble-mindedness. Even the word religion, which once meant something to describe the whole of human life, with respect to one’s relationship with God, has now been placed in a special category. To be religious is be someone who believes in God, as though religion is a type of add-on to human existence, and not something essential to human existence. In other words, everyone is a human being, but only some are religious, a way of thinking that would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago.
All of these changes are new, as the modern world has sought to divide the natural and supernatural realms, which were formerly united.
Methinks that the advocates of scientism today have simply jumped out of one box, into another box, without knowing it.