Evolving Words and the Word of God

words-1Among the many podcasts I listen to is the Slate program Lexicon Valley which is kind of a pop exploration of all things language related, think Radio Lab but with words instead of science. A recent episode discussed the way in which words evolve and the impulse that many of us have to criticize new and novel uses of language. One of the show’s hosts, Bob Garfield, mentioned his great loathing for the way that many people today use the word “literally” when they mean “figuratively” (e.g., “when people misuse language, my head literally explodes”). This is also one of my pet peeves, but as the program progressed, I was stunned to learn that this shift in the way that “literally” is used goes back at least as far as 1903!

Words Change

There are a million words like “literally” that have shifted in meaning over the centuries, to the point that they now mean almost the opposite of what they once meant. A great example from our Anglican formularies is found in Article X, which says in part, “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us…” To the modern reader, it sounds like the article is telling us that we cannot do good works unless Jesus stops us from doing good works, which makes no sense. In fact, “prevent” originally meant to come before or to precede, so that the article’s meaning is that we cannot do good works unless we have been previously enabled to do them by God’s grace.

Regardless of what you think about biological evolution, it is one hundred percent certain that language evolves. Language is not like math. It is not static and tidy, nor is it predictable. Words change over time, as do the ways in which we use them. What seems utterly wrong in one generation might be completely fine in another. Language is an art more than it is a science. And in many ways, it is like a living organism. It adapts to its surroundings. It grows. It makes it own rules, then breaks them, then makes another set and starts the process all over again.

The Way We Read Matters

Given this evolution of language, what are we to make of the words that God has given us in Scripture? Surely, this poses a challenge to the kind of sola scriptura teaching that insists upon a “plain reading” without the influence of exterior factors. In this much, postmodernism, for all its foibles, is absolutely correct. There is no such thing as a reading of a text that is unaffected by a thousand exterior factors. If you take a Bible off by yourself and simply try to live by it, assuming even that you could somehow have the original text, in the original language, with no alterations, you would still not achieve a “plain reading” because there is no way for you to get out of your own head and receive the meaning of the words objectively. Everyone reads a text slightly differently, based on their own experiences and influences, as the comment thread on this post will no doubt reveal about how you all receive even what I am writing right now.

Richard Hooker was no postmodernist, but he understood this principle. In articulating the Anglican position on Scripture as opposed to the Puritan position, he says in Book I of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

In like sort, albeit scripture do profess to contain in it all things which are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things that are necessary, but all things that are necessary in some certain kind or form; as all things that necessary, and either could not at all, or could not easily be known by the light of natural discourse; all things which are necessary to be known that we may be saved, but known with pre supposal of knowledge concerning certain principals whereof it receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necesary.

Of course, in this statement alone we see the principle of language’s evolution at work, since Hooker uses many words here differently than we would use them today (and that’s after I cleaned up the spelling). But Hooker’s point in regards to Scripture is that we have to come to it with a certain amount of knowledge already intact if we are going to get anything out of it. He will go on to use the example of a person learning to read so that he may read what the Bible says. A person needs to be taught to read in order to read the Bible, which means that a person needs to have this skill in order to receive the gifts of salvation which the Bible has to offer, but the Bible cannot teach us to read. That has to come from somewhere else.

The Church as Living Interpreter

Hooker is by no means trying to undermine the authority of Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help us see just what this authority is and how it should function in the life of the Church. Hooker’s work describes what many other Anglican divines also tried to articulate, the necessity of applying reason and tradition to Scripture in order to properly understand it, something which Hooker believed could only be done effectively in the life of the Church, not off on one’s own. This is why the things that the Church of England fought to preserve through the Reformation–things like the historic episcopate and the practice of liturgical worship–are so important as to be considered essential to the the Church’s well being. The radical notion of Puritanism that still infects much of Protestantism today was that the Christian Church could be rebooted from scratch in every generation through an objective reading of God’s Word. The Puritans rightly believed that the Gospel does not change, but they mistook the words of the Bible themselves for the actual thing, rather than understanding those words as sign posts pointing towards the grace of God. Ironically, this is exactly what many Protestants both then and now accuse Catholic Christians of in our approach to the Sacraments. In point of fact, as Luther argued and Hooker echoed, both the administration of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Scriptures are places where God’s eternal Word transforms ordinary things into channels of His grace.

As Article XX reminds us, the Church is the “keeper of holy writ.” This means not only preserving the text but also passing on the rule of faith which allows the text to be properly understood. Part of Anglicanism’s vocation has been to be a witness for the Scripture’s proper place in the life of the Church. The Church does not exist over Scripture, as if Scripture is nothing but a collection of our thoughts about God, but neither should the Church attempt to empty herself of all other wisdom and receive only Scripture because attempting to do that leads inevitably to radical and grotesque departures from the Gospel. Rather, the Church must patiently apply the tools at her disposal, learning about the culture that produced the texts of Scripture and the evolution of language that has happened since, always coming back to the rule of faith that has been applied throughout the centuries to biblical interpretation, the rule that grounds everything that we receive in the good news of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Tongue Twisters

This kind of interpretation can be a slippery business, as we have seen in contemporary Anglicanism’s near collapse. It is easy to misstep in one direction or the other, either falling into the trap of postmodern liberalism and suggesting that there is no real meaning to the text besides what we give it, or falling into the trap of reacting against such nonsense by developing a neo-puritanism that pretends to give us the Bible alone and unadulterated, all the while piling on its own set of cultural baggage behind the scenes. Both of these are heresies. The Bible can be properly interpreted by the faithful Church, but only if the Church does not receive the Scripture in a vacuum, as if nothing has happened since the apostolic era. Rather, the Scriptures must be set within a stream of teaching that has continued unabated since the apostolic era, a teaching that spread around the globe, adapting to new cultures not by accommodating their idiosyncrasies but by speaking their language. The Word never changes, but words do. This is why Jesus established a Church and not a library. A library’s job is to preserve words as museum pieces. The Church’s job is to use them for the healing of the world by the cure of souls.

The Play is the Thing

This means for Christians that we are not to try to live under the authority of the naked Bible, as if the book could jump up and start telling us what to do, but instead to live under the authority of the biblically centered Church. A play comes to life when a director, actors, and others all do their part to bring about a faithful rendition of a script. Far too many Christians seem to think that the play can go on with the script alone.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was in the tenth grade. I was a nerdy kid who liked reading, but Shakespeare still did not make any sense to me. The cultural and linguistic distance between the Bard and mid-nineties me was just too much to bridge through my simple reading. But when we watched a recording of a production of Twelfth Night in class, suddenly the whole thing made sense. In that performance, what Shakespeare was trying to communicate came through by means of the faithful witness of the company. The Scriptures can be so much more than mere words, but not on their own. They need the Church’s faithful witness to bring them to life.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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8 Responses to Evolving Words and the Word of God

  1. Robert Guyer says:

    Good read. Thank you. Do you think the allure of biblical “fundamentalism” or, more favorably, we the faithful following the model of the Bereans, flows in part from us trying to protect ourselves from our teachers?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Certainly. I think it’s a product of our desire for God and our disillusionment with institutions. We see how broken the Church is and we yearn for God to guide us in a way that doesn’t involve such corruption. It’s an understandable impulse, but it leads to all kinds of problems.

  2. Cadog says:

    Fr. Jonathan, your post unifies a number of themes you have developed over the past couple years, and this has helped me immensely in my Anglican journey. But it also prompts some questions.

    For example, the preference of some for the KJV Bible — or for that matter the 1662 prayer book, or even the 1928 prayer book — all of these are difficult to follow, even for an educated person. And as you point out, some of the meanings of identical words have changed dramatically since these volumes were set forth. Why then the objection to say the 1979 prayer book? Would it be better to provide contemporary renditions of these foundational documents (which if they exist I am not aware of them)?

    In a similar vein — how it is that we establish the “best” authority (this reference to the “best” coming from my recollection of footnotes in whatever version of the bible I used as a youth) — who decided they are “best”? And — here is my real dilemma — what I really desire your wisdom on, never mind the preliminaries:

    Fr. J., you have completely won me over with the concept of conciliar authority. But, as a non-Roman catholic — after the first 4 councils recognized by Anglicanism — what then is the conciliar authority? Is there any? Is the decennial Lambeth Conference (or any one of them) such an authoritative council? If the human structural authority whereby the Holy Spirit communes and communicates with and thru his church are the councils of the church — and these councils have been convened down thru the centuries — then why the chaos and dissolution within Anglicanism and especially the US church and even the Church of England itself? How will God’s authority be communicated and His will be done, under these circumstances? Or is Rome right in its application of conciliar structure and authority (as in Vatican II), even if we as Anglicans disagree with Rome’s overall dogma?

    OK — that is probably way too complex a series of questions … but that is what is on my mind.

    Thank you and blessings and peace to you Fr. Jonathan and your family and all of your blog readers.

    Friend Cadog.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Ah… throw me some easy ones, why don’t you. ;-)

      In regards to biblical translation and prayer books, you’re absolutely right. It is not only permissible, it is a darn good idea to have updates to these things that take into consideration the changes in how language is used. That does not mean that we give up the poetry of the liturgy. After all, the language of common prayer is not, so to speak, “common” language, but the language we use when addressing a king, the King of Heaven. But the reformers knew and intended for there to be revision to the prayer book that would help it to speak better to the time and place it is given in. And, in fact, there have been several attempts to “modernize” the language in 1928 and 1662 BCPs, with mixed results. The issue with the 1979 BCP is not that the language was modernized (though there are placed where one wonders whether the folks who wrote Rite II had ever read a poem). The problem there is rather a theological problem. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m content to live under the 1979 BCP’s authority, so long as it is interpreted to be in continuity with the historic Anglican liturgies. But that’s not what the architects of that document were after. They wanted to open the door to things new and different, and in the plethora of dismal liturgical supplements that have come since they got well more than they bargained for.

      In terms of conciliarity and authority, you put your finger on the heart of the problem for the modern Church. We are divided, which makes a fullness of conciliarity impossible, not just for Anglicans but for everybody. This is one of the reasons why ecumenical work is so important, because unity is not simply a good idea but an essential characteristic of the Church that has been badly suppressed by sin. That said, conciliarity is not just about ecumenical councils. It is about a particular way of being Church together from the diocesan level on up. In the Anglican Communion, the Lambeth Conference has been the closest thing that we’ve had to a real conciliar authority, but we have never actually been willing to give it teeth. As I heard Michael Nazir-Ali say at Mere Anglicanism two years ago, “Anglicans have been dodging conciliarity for more than a century now.” In that same conference, I heard Mouneer Anis, the primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, give a fantastic presentation on how Anglicanism has historically pointed to conciliarity but we have been unwilling up until now to actually practice it. Conciliarity is not easy. It requires great humility, common recognition, and a desire for the unity of the Church that is greater than our desire to be “right” or “autonomous.” The Covenant process may be half dead at this point, but it’s still really our best shot for conciliarity as a communion to come to fruition in our lifetimes, and I think there is a genuine desire on the part of many of the global south churches to embrace that kind of conciliarity. Will we get there? Who knows? That is up to God.

      In the mean time, we are faithful where we are placed. Hope that helps.

      • “We are divided, which makes a fullness of conciliarity impossible, not just for Anglicans but for everybody. This is one of the reasons why ecumenical work is so important, because unity is not simply a good idea but an essential characteristic of the Church that has been badly suppressed by sin.”

        Of course this is why the Roman Catholic claim to be be the church in and of itself is so attractive. It’s not true, of course, but it’s attractive.

      • Cadog says:

        Many thanks Fr. Jonathan. After my own priest no one has been so helpful to me in matters of faith and practice during the past 3 years as you have been, and I deeply appreciate your website and all of those who care and question enough to participate.

  3. W00t W00t, Fr. J, all around! “not a library but a church” is an incredible line. Also I appreciate the discussion of the 79 BCP: you’ve articulated just what many of us have thought for a long time – we’re happy enough with it as long as it’s used in continuity with this historic Anglican ways, but it where those departures come that we have problems. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Aaron says:

    I always took “All things necessary” as a very vague statement- and I could see how the Puritans could take that idea and run with it into Biblicism. Hooker seems to be saying that the Bible, while it says it contains all things necessary, is not complete in itself.

    I think claims of chaos in the Anglican world are overblown. The first millennium of Christendom had worse disputes than what is happening now, which in some ways is relatively trivial. Perhaps we simply lack historical perspective, or are attached too much to our own opinions and viewpoints.

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