I am a huge fan of the Denver Broncos. HUGE! So this week has been a good week for me since they just crushed the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. But this isn’t what this post is about, as you probably guessed from its title. But my thoughts were spurred by an sports columnist for the The Star in Toronto, Bruce Arthur who wrote an insightful piece on Roger Godelll and the NFL’s (mis?)handling of concussion issues. In this article he wrote the following about the trouble with the way our society treats words:
“‘Literally’ is a word that now has a dictionary definition which is the precise opposite of its actual meaning, and an emoji of a crying happy face was chosen as Oxford’s word of the year in 2015. If words do not matter, what does?”
The answer to Arthur’s rhetorical question is obvious -nothing does! In our society tolerance and political correctness are more than social movements, they are methodologies that govern the way in which we approach issues of truth and therefore they change how we understand and use words. Should we just accept the words and therefore the ‘truth’ of anybody and everybody as equally valid? OR, is there truth that goes beyond the words we use to describe it that also governs those words and binds us to that which is the truth? I dare say that every Christian should agree resoundingly with the latter perspective, for if we follow the former, we are left with dangerous implications. If words don’t matter then the one who utters those words matters even less than the words spoken. Or to put it another way, if a word can mean anything when spoken or written, then the one who utters those words can’t be taken seriously as a truth-teller, and the interpreter has every right to be skeptical, at best, or outright deny the words and the speaker, at worst.
As a Christian truth is of utmost importance. Our God is truth (John 14:6-7); his words are truth (John 17:17); and we are commanded by God to “rightly handle” the Bible, his word of truth (2 Timothy 2:14-16). In short, truth is truth, because God is truth and he has revealed the truth to us. This truth is communicated by God in words. He has chosen to condescend to us using human language so that we will understand his truth. God lisps to us the way a nurse speaks to a child, as Calvin says, so that we can understand him.
Truth matters, therefore words matter. Or to put it another way, without words we can’t have truth, or at least we can’t access truth, and, I think we all know that without truth, well, we don’t really have much of anything. Therefore, words are important; words matter.
Christians, then, need to approach the toolbox of language (to borrow the illustration of Wittgenstein, but NOT his philosophy) believing that it is a gift of God. God’s original intention for language was to be a tool for explaining and understanding the world around us (general revelation) and for understanding him unto salvation (special revelation). In short, language is given to us and words are used by God to communicate the truth about him, in order to draw us closer to him. This is why words matter so much.
We must understand that our attitude toward words mirrors our attitude toward truth. If we devalue truth we will devalue the words used to communicate truth. If we devalue words, we will devalue the truth that words are intended to describe. We must believe in both truth (truth as defined as correspondence to reality; a reality that God has initiated and sovereignly rules over) as well as the ability of language to communicate this truth effectively though not exhaustively.
To make it more practical, our attitude toward words (and therefore truth) will affect our attitude toward the word of God and therefore will impact strongly on the way we read and apply the Bible and ultimately on the way we understand God. As Robert Jensen identifies in his book The Revelation of God, “we behave towards these words [the Bible] as we behave towards God himself. They convey his person to us, since they are to be treated as we would treat him. When we obey his word, we obey him; when we trust his word, we trust him; when we study his word, we study him; when we preach his word, we preach him. He is not his word; and yet he is, for his word is the appointed place of our relationship, and he is supremely faithful to it.”
Words matter. GOD’S word matters.