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.
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.