The Problem with Words

I mentioned in other essays that in my translation work, I have studiously avoided what I referred to as “Christian passwords.”  These are words so frequently quoted that it is assumed that “everybody knows” what they mean: usually a standardized, sanitized definition that rattles no doctrinal cages. This is not helpful in finding out what the writer wrote, or what the reader understood, in the beginning.

Words are funny things. Essential for communication, they can nevertheless confuse as much as they clarify. Words encompass far more than their “lexical meanings” (a term used by linguists to refer to dictionary definitions).  Connotations, implications, shades of meaning vary widely, depending upon the perspectives of a speaker/writer and the hearer/reader, which may — or may not — be similar.

Our understanding of words is heavily dependent on context. If I use the word “drive,” for example, how do you know whether I am referring to : operating a car — collecting funds — playing golf or baseball — a very hard rain — intense ambition — basic physical needs — a gadget on my computer — or a host of other things? (English is particularly bad at this.) Only the context can give you a clue.

When one moves between languages, the situation becomes even more complicated. There is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between two words, in any two languages. If one tries to translate “literally,” how is he to choose among all these “meanings?”
Cultural convention, likewise, affects the “flavor” of what is understood by certain words. This varies over time. (In the 1950’s, the heyday of the McCarthy persecutions, “red” was no longer simply a color! It was a dangerous accusation!)

Also, any currently spoken language is constantly changing. Consider as an example that is not theologically “loaded”, that in Elizabethan (KJV, Shakespeare) English, “quick” meant “alive,” not fast, sudden, or rapid. “The quick and the dead” meant “the living and the dead,” not, as some would have it, the two categories of pedestrians in city traffic!

All of these considerations and others come into play when one turns to the study of Scripture. Over the years, many “definitions” or understandings have become codified into “doctrines,” which in turn have become weapons in the battle for “orthodoxy.” Subsequent “translation” works, and assorted Bible dictionaries and chain references, have then incorporated these standardized understandings, without reference to the freight carried in the words chosen by the original writers.  (Please see the essay, “The task of a Translator,” posted previously). Many “proofs” are derived entirely from English texts, without regard for departures from the source documents. Accurate understanding depends upon trying to hear what was communicated to the first readers.

“So must we all learn Greek?” Ideally, yes. It is a fascinating, enlightening study that can enormously enhance one’s appreciation for the graciousness of the Lord’s invitation to us, to become a part of his Kingdom!  But even without direct access to the Greek language, a student of Scripture can uncover a vast quantity of treasure by careful use of the tools of Word Study.

The basic principle behind this study method is simple linguistics: one learns best to understand the meaning of a word by observing the context in which it is used. That’s how you learned to talk! When your toddler is learning to talk, you don’t hand him a dictionary! You point, and demonstrate — “show and tell!”  This is also the best way to learn another language.

So give it a try! I can almost guarantee surprises — and delight. And who knows — you just might get “hooked”! There are worse addictions!


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