The Semantics of it All
I have run into several semantic issues when writing, reading, and otherwise engaging with Christian writers, socialites, and other opinionated people. A lot of times we are imprecise with our language. This imprecision leads to misunderstanding. The misunderstanding leads to very strong opinions both for and against one another that need not exist.
Merriam-Webster defines semantics as simply “the study of meanings.” It studies signs and the meanings affixed to those signs. Language is man’s most common sign, it is a set of arbitrary sounds to which man has ascribed meaning. Semiotics goes further into the philosophy behind semantics. Steve Morris (featured in Is Genesis Mythopoetic and Does it Matter Part 2) has the following statement on Linguistic Semiotics on his page:
Linguistic analyses of meaning lead, in many ways, to an approach shared (or appropriated) by anthropology. Basically, the questions are posed, “What is meaning?” and “How does a word (or image) convey meaning?” (Indeed, some linguistics experts have asked, “How does a sound have significance?”) Signs and Symbols – Section 10
What do we mean when we talk about Theology or Ecclesiology or Hymnody? Are all or most of our disagreements attributable to semantic misunderstanding? I have a couple examples of potential semantic misunderstanding.
Example #1: Religion or Relationship
I read an excellent article the other day which revisited the poet Jeff Bethke who wrote and performed the poem Why I Hate Religion and Love Jesus. In the comments section, a user was adamant that anyone who argued against the poem was obviously having a semantic misunderstanding that could be resolved by replacing the word Religion with the phrase Organized Religion.
One problem with that argument is the fact that the phrase Organized Religion is redundant. Religion is, by definition, organized. In other words, questions of Ecclesiology do not revolve around whether there should be one, the questions have more to do with the form of one’s Ecclesiology.
Jeff Bethke touches on semantics as they relate to his poem in a blog post. He states that when he uses the term Religion in his poem, he means Legalism. However, he chose to keep the term religion undefined in the poem so that the listener/reader can define it for themselves. While that is his prerogative as an artist, he should not be surprised that it sparked a discussion. The level of imprecision absolutely begged for it. It could not be a misunderstanding if the definition was open for interpretation.
Further, if everyone is free to define Religion as they chose, why react as though someone’s definition was wrong? Every Christian holds to a religion whether in the Highest of Churches or in the privacy of one’s own mind. Our worship is organized in one way or another.
Example #2: By and Through
The other day I received a text message. One of those texts intended to share a simple little heavenly thought to help you focus on the Lord. I enjoy receiving these text messages very much. However, I had a small issue with semantics, particularly given the medium that allows for zero nuance.
The text message emphatically proclaimed that “Faith alone saves.” This statement, if taken with no nuance, leads us back to a meritocracy based on our faith. If we’re not careful, we start thinking that our salvation is BY faith, when scripture tells us it is BY grace, THROUGH faith. It is a cooperative effort, but the real skill lies with the giver of grace and not the receiver.
It’s kind of like winning a home makeover. There’s this show where an internal designer hangs out at the hardware store and offers to re-do someone’s kitchen (or whatever). He offers to come in and do the work. The homeowner has to give him permission. Once the homeowner gives the OK and opens the doors, the designer brings his crew, sends the homeowner on vacation and gets to work.
This is what I mean (semantically) by “cooperative effort.” You are the homeowner, God is the skilled interior designer. He asks if He can use his skill to makeover your heart (by His grace) and you cooperate by giving him the OK (through faith). I know this is not a perfect illustration, there hardly ever is a “perfect illustration,” but that is what I mean by cooperation. It’s not exactly a 50/50 scenario.
I have already discussed the issue of semantics when I discussed the difference between infallibility and inerrancy. I plan to consider a few more topics that deserve some clarification for the sake of precision and write blog posts on them as well. A few of my initial thoughts include the following:
- New Testament Principles
How would a Roman Catholic define these terms? A Lutheran? A Methodist? A Baptist? When we actually listen to one another can we come to some kind of agreement on the validity of each faith tradition’s understanding of these terms and their place in scripture?
Unfortunately, language is ambiguous. There is an inherent lack of precision as we partake in discussions. We use words to define other words, and could potentially keep refining our definition by defining the words that define our main words. Perhaps a lot of our issues amount to semantic misunderstandings. Maybe we think we know what our brothers are talking about when they say something, but actually have no clue. Perhaps that is why our speech is to be graceful, as if it were seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6).
Your thoughts? Let me know what semantic issues you have seen. What do you think of my list? Are there any terms you would add?