Reformed Baptist Fellowship

The Problem with Words

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 2, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Human life is all about communication. God made us to be social creatures, interacting with others over a wide spectrum of occasions. From the womb onward, we express ourselves. Parents nurture their children; friends encourage friends; people reach out to one another. But most importantly, the Lord speaks to us. Our theologians teach us that God’s communication is by way of analogy. The difference between Creator and creature is so great that our Sovereign must stoop to make himself known to us.
Human communication is complicated by the confusion of tongues. Each language is different in structure and vocabulary, so that in many cases, there are few one-to-one correspondences between words and phrases from one language to another. Bible translators have struggled with this reality for centuries. It is imperative to take inspired words and render them into another language; yet it may be that the receiving language cannot adequately express the thought of the original.

Beyond this, at times our translators have worked with an agenda in mind. Rather than render the Greek word ekklesia properly as assembly, or perhaps congregation, they gave us the word ‘church’ thus obscuring the intention of the original. In another case, they failed to even attempt to translate baptizo, and simply transliterated it into English. To translate the term would have created difficulties for a widespread practice!

Theology has struggled with the problem of words. In some cases, human language has simply been inadequate to express the transcendent wonder of its object. It is fascinating to read the history of trinitarianism, noting how devout and careful theologians struggled to find terms adequate for such a sublime doctrine. Similarly, theologians wrestle with the dynamic character of language. Over time, almost all words change in sense. Common usage may take a term, such as ‘prevent’ and alter it completely. At the beginning of the 17th century, this term was understood in the positive sense ‘go before’-it is used this way in the Authorized Version in 1 Thess. 4. But we no longer employ the word with this sense today. Words evolve.

And so does language. From century to century, the usage of words ebbs and floes. A word that is common in an earlier period may completely drop out of use; while new terms are being minted constantly. Each year news reports tell us which new terms have been added to the standard dictionaries. In our own generation we see this. If in 1965 you heard two people speaking about email, cell phones, iPods, and eBay, you would have no idea of what they spoke! Yet today, these are the commonest of terms in our vocabulary.

These realities are a problem for our theological thinking and formulation. As heirs of a long and wonderful tradition of Christian thinkers, men who dedicated their lives to understanding and applying the truth of Scripture, we need to be aware of these realities. Our words may not have been their words; the freight we place on terms may not have been present in their thinking; words in common use today may not even have been introduced into the language when they penned their treatises. If we fail to remember this, we will run into all kinds of difficulties in understanding what they wrote and advocated. John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards and others thought and wrote as men of their own times-and when we read them, we must remember this. Historical theology is not a simple discipline-in fact it is a complex discipline requiring careful research and contemplation. It is not right to sit in judgment on the past until we first understand the past-why did our theologians express themselves as they did? What was the state of language when they wrestled with these issues? Matters may be very complex, and we must not rush to judgment.

I am thankful, however, for one word which never fails to communicate-the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is faithful in all things, and never fails us. Our greatest study must be knowing Him. He is the sum of all theology-God’s final revelation of Himself to man. While there may be many problems inherent in our words, there is no problem with this Word.

James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
http://www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org
  1. Overall, great article! I mean that sincerely. There are definitely complexities and challenges involved in communication, translation, and interpretation. I have two relatively minor observations that do not contradict Dr. Renihan’s thesis above but may, I hope, add clarity and precision.

    First, he remarks, “Our theologians teach us that God’s communication is by way of analogy. The difference between Creator and creature is so great that our Sovereign must stoop to make himself known to us.” I affirm that humans, human language, and human knowledge are analogues of God, divine language, and divine knowledge. Moreover, God’s creation of man as his image was an act of condescension. Accordingly, all interaction between God and his image may be viewed in terms of condescension.

    I do see, however, a danger in the way God’s condescension via “accommodation” is sometimes portrayed. In an effort to stress the Creator/creature distinction, some theologians seem to emphasize discorrespondence rather than correspondence between divine and human language. The illustration of a nurse lisping, “Goo, goo, gah, gah,” to an infant is not too far removed from a human trying to communicate with a duck employing the sounds, “Quack, quack, quack.” In both cases, very little meaningful content is being exchanged and we are left with little more than what Karl Barth speaks of as an “existential encounter.” (BTW, it’s not surprising that Barth liked Calvin’s doctrine of “accommodation” and loved to stress the Creator/creature distinction to the point of describing God as “the wholly [virtually unknowable] other.”

    I like to view human language in the same way the Bible portrays humans–as a divinely designed medium of revelation. As the imago Dei, human beings are “theomorphs” and human language is “theomorphic.” When God wanted to communicate with humans, he didn’t have to look around for some inherently flawed or inadequate medium of communication. When he created man as his covenant creature (and I don’t believe the divine-human covenant relationship was a superadditum), he simultaneously created an analogue of his own language, one perfectly suited for divine-human communion so that man might know truly who God is and what he requires. Here, I agree with Moises Silva when he writes,

    “The notion that God thereby accommodates to our imperfect human understanding contains an element of truth, to be sure, but perhaps we are approaching the issue from the wrong end. Our use of this term reflects our human-centered perspective. Indeed, it is not altogether far-fetched to say that descriptions of what we are and do should be termed ‘theomorphisms’! In other words, it is not as though God looks at our existence and searches for some quality that will illustrate in simple language who God is. Rather, our human qualifies are themselves but a reflection of God’s person and attributes. And so the tables must be turned. With regard to God’s speech in particular, the real question is not ‘How can God speak (since he does not have a body)?’ but ‘How can we speak?’ The answer to this is: We are made in the image of a God who speaks” (God, Language and Scripture, in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation [Zondervan, 1996], 206; see also Vern Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation [P&R, 1999], 32-36; John Frame, The Doctrine of God [P&R, 2002], 366-68).

    I’m not sure that Dr. Renihan would disagree. But I thought I’d add these observations (as a kind of footnote to what he says above) in order to including a kind of counterbalancing perspective to the reality of the Creator/creature distinction and the concept of divine accommodation.

    Second, Dr. Renihan reasons,”Human communication is complicated by the confusion of tongues. Each language is different in structure and vocabulary, so that in many cases, there are few one-to-one correspondences between words and phrases from one language to another.” I agree that the event of Babel is one factor that accounts for the diversity of human language today. I don’t believe it’s the only factor. Many distinctions in human languages and dialects that we observe today are post-Babel developments. This is not to disagree with Dr. Renihan’s point but only to add a further dimension.

    Also, he reasons that because “there are few one-to-one correspondences between words and phrases from one language to another.” As a consequence, “Bible translators have struggled with this reality for centuries. It is imperative to take inspired words and render them into another language; yet it may be that the receiving language cannot adequately express the thought of the original.” I think his point is generally valid but, perhaps, overstated.

    First, there are in fact more than just a “few one-to-one correspondences between words and phrases from one language to another.” Otherwise, we’d have to reject altogether formal equivalency as a translation philosophy and throw in our lot with a translation philosophy that is almost entirely that of dynamic equivalency. Remember that “correspondence” does not demand “univocacy.” Consequently, we can often find an English word or phrase that adequately corresponds to a Hebrew or Greek word or phrase. On the other hand, I don’t want my minor caveat to undermine the valid point he makes, viz., there are significant structural differences between languages that make translation from one to another sometimes challenging. It is not always possible, for example, to gloss a single Hebrew word with a single English word. In some cases, what the Hebrew writer communicated with a single lexeme the English translator must communicate with a plurality of lexemes. Furthermore, even when the English translator finds an English term whose semantic range of meaning sufficiently overlaps with the Hebrew word or phrase he’s seeking to translate, the semantic boarders are often not exact but only approximate. In such cases, he must translate with the hope that his reader will interpret the English gloss he’s offered only where it semantically intersects with the Hebrew original. I think what I say here basically reinforces Dr. Renihan’s point above.

    I think the final clause in Dr. Renihan’s paragraph I cited above calls for qualification, however. When he says, “It may be that the receiving language cannot adequately express the thought of the original,” he could give the reader the impression that there are are facets of special revelation in our Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Bible that are irremediably hidden to speakers of modern languages like English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, etc. Here we need to tread with caution.

    Some lexicographers (like Kenneth Wuest) and preachers (who follow his linguistic philosophy) have employed this line of thought to argue that there are precious “nuggets of truth” present in the koine Greek of the NT (or the Hebrew of the OT), which cannot be conveyed in the English language. Ironically, these individuals often write word studies or preach sermons that go on to “unpack” those precious nuggets of truth IN ENGLISH!

    Furthermore, I’ve read missionary stories where it is claimed that such-and-such a people group do not have a word for “God” or “sin” or “faith,” etc. That may be true. That does not mean, however, that their brain is incapable of conceptualizing such ideas or that their language is incapable of expressing such ideas. The translator may be unable to find just the right word in the receptor language to translate ideas expressed by such words as ‘elohim/theos, hata’th/hamartia, batah/pistis, etc. Nevertheless, via circumlocution, that is, the use of several words to convey a single idea, he is able adequately to transfer redemptive truth from one language to another.

    Once again, the key word is “adequately.” If Dr. Renihan had said, “It may be that the receiving language cannot PERFECTLY express the thought of the original,” I’d be more inclined to agree. The adverb “adequately,” however, simply means “as much or as good as necessary for some requirement or purpose.” My commitment to the doctrines of the sufficiency of Scripture, the preservation of God’s word, the general correspondence between human and divine language, and the Great Commission to take the gospel to every language group constrains me to affirm a *sufficient correspondence* between divine and human language as well as between different human languages, which in turn ensures an *essential adequacy* of truth-transferability.

    In closing, let me stress that my comments should be read as attempts to add clarity to Jim’s fine essay. I hope I haven’t muddied the water and that my comments do not detract from his basic thesis, which underscores the need for familiarity with some of the complexities involved in communication, translation, and interpretation, as well as the need to develop a sound linguistic methodology that enables us to interpret properly the original words in their original context (whether that be biblical words in the Bible or theological terminology in post-biblical literature) and to translate accurately the concept(s) conveyed by those words into the receptor language. Dr. Renihan’s essay does a find job of underscoring this vital thesis.

    Bob Gonzales

  2. Thanks, Jim!

    Ad fontes.

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