Preachers and authors do it all the time. They quote the English definition of a word or refer to its linguistic roots as a way to ground their argument, to establish the meaning of a term or concept. Then they move on, seemingly convinced that they have offered up enough evidence for their audience to trust that they are indeed communicating the true sense of that term. What is not often realized is that, for the Christian, this kind of appeal to the dictionary or history is actually an inadequate grounding.
Perhaps a sermon is being delivered on Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The preacher focuses on the meaning of comfort in his introduction to his sermon idea. To do this, he quotes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which defines the verb comfort as:
- to give strength or hope to: cheer
- to ease the grief or trouble of: console
The preacher then takes this meaning of comfort, summarizes what comfort means according to the definitions he’s just read, and then gives his main point: Our God gives strength and hope to his people through his promises of salvation.
Or, perhaps a Christian counselor is writing a book on grief and to establish what comfort means, he appeals to the Latin roots of the word. In Latin, com meant with, and fortis meant strength. So, the author concludes, comfort means “with strength,” to be with someone in a way that gives them strength.
What’s the problem with these very common ways to establish the meaning of a term or concept? The problem is that this method of establishing meaning has only served to give us what one particular language and culture believed about that concept at a given time. But how do I know that Merriam-Webster English is giving me a true and universal meaning for comfort? Or how can I be sure that the meaning the Romans gave to their words is a faithful witness to what comfort actually is? Why should I trust these snapshots of a language at a particular time over my own personal definition for the term, cobbled together by the thousands of contexts where I have heard and seen that term used?
Unfortunately, any given language is an imperfect witness to eternal truth. A language is limited in its perspective on reality. It “thinks” in a certain way, and this affects how it describes things. This gives each language a unique perspective and voice, but that uniqueness also implies it’s missing a bunch of things that other languages notice. In English I am my age, in Spanish I have my age. If I only speak English, I only think about age in a certain way. But I am missing out on the reality that age is not just something I can be, it is also something I can possess.
Each language is also limited by the kind of vocabulary and grammar it has. When a culture is strong in something it will have a whole cloud of words related to that concept. When it is weak in something, it might only have one word, or none. Our Central Asian focus culture (strong on kinship) has unique names for all kinds of relatives that in English would simply be a known as cousin, aunt, or uncle. When it comes to grammar, some languages don’t have a future tense. Others don’t use articles at all (a, the, etc.). Languages are limited things. They are also constantly changing things, with each new generation bringing a slightly different pronunciation and even meaning to the same batch of words – and sometimes inventing entirely new ones.
Consider the necessity of explaining what the fear of the Lord actually means and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. In contemporary English, fear has lost all of its positive connotations and has only retained its negative ones. As for Lord, unless someone is reasonably informed about medieval history, the term has lost any of its earthly contextual meaning and is now only a Christianese term. The fear of the Lord simply does not communicate to my secular contemporaries in an easily understandable way. Our language has changed, like a thick fog rolling in, and obscured the true meaning of this phrase.
All of this is why pointing the audience to a dictionary definition or to the history of a word doesn’t provide an adequate grounding for Christians. We are people of the Logos, God’s eternal word, which entered into the ever-unstable sea of fallen human language and thereby provided us access to fixed, eternal truth and meaning – an anchor, not only for our souls, but also for our tongues. It is not enough for for us to know how Oxford or Merriam-Webster or our various ancestors defined a word. We need to know how God defines it. We need an eternal source with which we can compare our definitions of a word and tweak, turn, or gut accordingly.
Our preachers and authors must demonstrate what a given term means in the Bible, for only in the scriptures do we have what was imperfect human language inspired to perfectly reveal eternal truth. Once we know what the Bible means by words like comfort, then we can lean on the dictionary or a word’s linguistic roots as a good illustration or secondary grounding. But our primary grounding for a term’s meaning must be God’s word.
This means we are deeply indebted to the translators who worked hard to make God’s word clear in our mother tongue. We are also indebted to biblical scholars who can help us understand a word’s range of meaning in the original languages of the Bible – as well as those who can help compare that usage with how that term was used in other contemporary writings. Praise God, in the West we have easy access to many resources like this to help us. But the need is still great to continue to get solid Bible translations and resources into thousands of other languages without this kind of access.
The question might arise of what we should do if a certain term does not appear in the Bible, but we desire to test our language or culture’s limited definition. First, we should ask if the concepts behind the word are present in the scriptures, even if the word itself is not. Second, there is insight to be gleaned from comparing how different languages represent the same or similar concepts. If each language is indeed a unique and limited common grace witness to truth, then we should expect to find help as we put multiple languages together and see a fuller picture of what aspects of God’s wisdom their words have been able to preserve.
Preachers and authors, let’s make sure we ground our definitions in the only inspired source of eternal meaning we have, God’s word. This could often be as simple as an extra sentence or two. “The definition we just read fits well with how the Bible uses this term, as we see illustrated in this passage in…” or, “I like the Latin roots of this word because they echo so well with how the biblical authors use it, for example…” A small step toward a deeper grounding will help us communicate meaning that is eternal, and not that which is a mere snapshot of an imperfect language tradition.
It matters how the English and the Romans defined things. It matters infinitely more how God does.