How We Know What Words Mean

For some years now, I have grappled with how to communicate certain things for which the proper words have all been co-opted.

By way of example, suppose you are giving foster care to a child from an abusive Christian home, whose father always said,  “Son, I love you, and that’s why I have to do this,” before he delivered the inevitable daily beating.  When you say “I love you” to the child, he cringes and shies away.  What do you do?  The words have been stolen from you; you must reclaim them.  The only way to reclaim them is through experience, carefully.  Over time, the child will learn that when you say those words, they mean something different — they mean what they ought to mean.

I have been grappling with other expressions, things like “Christian worldview,” “interpreting Scripture according to context,” “church,” “fellowship,” and the like.  I had reached the conclusion some time ago that more explanation was not the answer; I had first of all to deliver an experience that was qualitatively different from what people expected. Then when the explanations came out, people would understand what the words meant.

This has always made me uneasy.  I had a hard time making my peace with it, theologically.  It always seemed to me — no doubt because of my bapti-fundamentalist background — that I was making some sort of weird compromise that should not be made.

I have slowly made my peace with it, grappling with how God establishes the meaning of words through creation, how He teaches all theology through history (which is to say, experience), and so on.

About a week ago, I read something that summarizes and extends this trend in my thinking far better than I could have done.  Here it is:

Our words are often flabby and weak.  For the word to be passed on and to give life, it has to be made flesh.  When, along with your word, you give your flesh and blood to others, only then do your words mean something.  Words without flesh, which do not spring from life and do not share out our flesh which is broken and our blood which is shed, mean nothing.  This is why, at the Last Supper, the Lord summarized the mystery of His preaching by saying: “Take, eat my Body,” “Drink My Blood.”

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink.  When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid.  He will have nothing to fear.  He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed.  By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother.  That is to say, he nourishes the other’s very existence and makes it grow.

(from Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronikita, Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church , translated by Elizabeth Briere  (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1984) 36.)


5 Responses to How We Know What Words Mean

  1. Gary says:

    Although I can appreciate and agree with what you and your quoted author are saying, I find a bit of discomfort in your stated conclusion that “explanation was not the answer…” So maybe you could provide a clarification.

    In my studies and interactions with other believers, I have found a massive problem in language itself. I have come to refer to a lot of what I hear from believers as “church-speak”. To me this is the use of words and phrases used by contemporary christendom as one mimics what they have heard from so many sources today. Most of the time I ask some church-speak speaker what they mean by what they have just said. They usually have no real answer, no base definition.

    I too have grappled with some of the words and phrases you mention, and with many, many more. I grapple with them by doing word studies in the Bible so I can try to learn how God uses words and thus do my best to have my meanings coincide with His. If He and I use words differently, then ultimately we are speaking a different language and my viewpoint ends up in human viewpoint instead of Divine Viewpoint. I would have to call this learning through a process of explanation, or at minimum a process of definition.

    Many times in this process I come face to face with things about God that I’m fairly certain that much of christendom would not find pleasant. For example, some time ago I did a detailed study on the word translated as “reprobate” in the KJV of Rom 1:28. If my conclusions are correct, the Greek word used therein is being used in the Bible to denote something that has been determined to have no value. If this is correct, then this would tell us that there is a point where our God and Creator can evaluate a human mind and see no value in it any more. He would be saying to a certain person, “your mind is worthless”. This might be a hard thing for some people to swallow about a God who is love and thus a believer who would suggest such a thing could be summarily rejected. But to be rejected for knowing and telling the truth is not a bad thing per the Text I study.

    These types of things are to be found in definition and explanation which takes days, months and years to study and understand and then explain. Certainly history and experience are excellent teachers and something used by The Teacher as only He can use it. And, certainly, if He uses it in such a manner, then we too should learn from Him and mimic Him as best we can in our learning and teaching. But I get a little uncomfortable when we start heading to the line so many of today’s pulpits have crossed, a line which demarks between the hard exegetical study of the Word of God for purposes of definition and explanation, and the silly experiential story-telling that ends up with believers walking around using church-speak that ultimately contains little to no basis from the Bible. And if there is any basis, such individuals are hard-pressed to come up with it when queried about the meaning of something they have made a normal part of their Christian vocabulary.

    Please know that I am not suggesting that you are advocating for the silliness. I can see in what you say that you are speaking of something deeper. When you speak of the blood and the flesh you are reaching into some depths that several of us are also working to comprehend. I’m just raising a point that I’ve learned to be cautious about. Divine Viewpoint is to be understood by learning to use words as God uses them. And I do consider this to be a process of learning by definition, explanation, and then into history and experience and using such means to help others to learn all we have learned through all the means that God uses to teach us.

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    I would differ from you at a couple of points here. Because I know you, I can say with some confidence that we are likely not all that far apart — more a matter of emphasis and language than substantive disagreement, I think.

    I agree that we need to learn to use words as God used them, and that hard-core exegetical study is essential to that job. That said, you know as well as I do — if not better — that a great number of hardcore exegetes are doing just as badly as anybody else on this point. Filling a shelf full of notebooks with points, polysyllabic terms and detailed diagrams is not the solution — it’s just ‘churchspeak’ elevated to an art form. A congregant who has learned that way for several years has an endless suppy of cool-sounding terms, but at the end of the day, it’s all smoke and mirrors — he doesn’t really know what the words mean, and he’s been led to believe that if his notebooks get full enough, he’ll become mature and then the application will happen spontaneously. (And yes, I realize there are exceptions, but in 10 years of exposure, I’ve earned the right to speak to the general trend, and this is it.) This ‘churchspeak-on-steriods’ is really nothing but low-budget gnosticism, but that’s another discussion.

    Many of the exegetes I’m talking about here — you know who I mean — simply don’t understand the nature of what they’re studying. They think they’re going to do some parsing and some etymology and come up with timeless truth, and they couldn’t be more wrong. It isn’t really about lexicography, important as that is. Roughly three quarters of the Bible is narrative — that is, accounts of what God did — and the other quarter is utterly meaningless without reference to the narrative. You can do all the etymological work on “redemption,” but ultimately, it is defined by what Jesus actually did for us. Try defining the word without reference to the story of Jesus, and try telling the story of Jesus in biblical depth without reference to the levitical system of sacrifice, and try explaining Leviticus apart from the preceding material about sacrifice in the accounts of the patriarchs, Noah, Abel and Adam. It’s all one story, and it is only within that story that “redemption” has its appropriate meaning.

    But don’t just consider this as a thought experiment; look at the expository books like Ephesians or Romans. Romans 4 is story; Romans 5 is story; Romans 6 works out the implications of the Jesus story; Romans 7 is Paul’s personal experience as a believer with an as-yet-unredeemed body; Romans 9 is Israel’s experience of God over 2000 years. Ephesians starts with the Father’s activity in eternity past, then the Son’s activity in history, then the Spirit’s present activity in the Church — that is, story. Ephesians 2 is the experience of the audience relative to the Trinity’s salvific plan. Chapter 3 is Paul’s ministry in light of that plan — experience again. 4-6 are the practical outworking of the Ephesian believers finding appropriate roles within that story — in other words, prescriptions for their present and future experience as they live out the story.

    ‘Story’ and ‘history’ are just other words for ‘experience;’ it’s the same thing.

    If you’re going to explain things biblically, you’re going to tell stories. More, if we take God’s way of defining words and concepts to heart, then we have to tell the stories that God tells, and also live in a way that defines the words that we use — that’s what Jesus did. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared (exhgeato, exegeted, explained) Him.” Jesus explained the Father not just by words — although there were plenty of those — but also by His deeds, culminating in the cross and resurrection. He intends the same for us: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

    According to Jesus’ prayer, the lives of God’s people are a means by which the world will come to believe the gospel, which is to say that they learn what to believe by watching what we do. It is the doing — the experience, in other words — that brings us to full age, according to Hebrews 5. In light of this, I believe that Scripture compels me to stand by my statement that more explanation doesn’t help much. According to Scripture, doing it is part of the package, and talking is not an acceptable substitute for actions — in fact, James 2 and Romans 2 were both specifically written to address that point.

    I’m a teacher by gifting, calling, and profession; I don’t want to take anything away from talking. God is pleased by the preached word to win the world. But it’s not the only tool, and it’s near-useless outside the context God designed for it. His Word does not return void, but that doesn’t mean it does anything and everything; rather, it accomplishes the thing for which He sent it.

  3. Gary says:


    As you say, more a matter of emphasis and language than substantive agreement, I think.

    My main concern was specifically about your statement regarding more explanation not being the answer. Maybe I should better explain how I have read your post.

    You speak of words that have been co-opted. You say the only way to reclaim them is through experience, carefully. You say that you concluded that more explanation was not the answer.

    What I saw in your reclamation example is that you seem to bypass corrected definition as part of the reclamation process. In my studies I see much of what you see, and I also see God defining words. It is on this that I commented.

    When terms have been co-opted, we have to get back to a base, biblical definition of the term. And I agree with you that narrative, stories, history, whatever you’d like to call the overall concept, is an important, even vital part of the process. But whenever possible, the accurate definition has got to be in view so the life experience can indeed match it.

    In your example of the abused child, I would thus add as an important part of the reclaiming process that the new teacher needs to also explain to the child the correct meaning of love, and in this the co-opted definition and lengthy, perverted illustration needs to be flatly renounced and redefined to accord with truth. I will agree with you that the actual learning process of the child will require that love must be illustrated experientially over time. And in this both the child and the teacher will most likely learn more things about love. But the core of the training process needs to have in its curriculum a biblical definition of love, and yes, explanation from biblical narrative to assist in understanding the definition. But we start with the Word and must always be prepared to go back to the basics of the Word for definition and explanation in any reclaiming process.

    And just to let you know a bit more of my thinking here, since you brought it up, I heard my Greek Professor loud and clear when he told me how our tools were just so good. Since then I have seen more and more how theology has colored lexicons and thus I find great value in doing extensive word studies in Scripture itself.

    I think, Tim, that we may be saying much of the same thing. However, the way I read your initial post, and still read it, I remain uneasy with the concept of experience being the only way of reclaiming co-opted words. The process of reclaiming must include corrected definition. And then experience must match. If we leave or leave out the biblical definition and the biblical explanation, or if we come into a situation late and then do not redefine when corrected definition is needed, then it really will not matter what the experience teaches if it has no biblical standard in truth to anchor to.

    Much of the problem I see on topic is that these expressions you have grappled with, some of which are ones I too have grappled with, and still grapple with, have been mostly defined from experience rather than from the TEXT. People just think or take for granted that they know biblical meanings. If you reclaim the abused child by loving biblically, the child may respond well to what you are doing but will he know it as love?

    When Paul referred to himself as a master-builder, he spoke of laying the foundation. When I build from ground up, I know with Paul how important it is to make certain the foundation is sound. When I come into a building process already begun, I know how important it is to check the foundation that has been laid before continuing with a building. In the reclaiming example you describe, its time to scrape back to the dirt and start over with a solid foundation which for me would have to include basic definition and explanation before building with experience.

    Problematically much of what I see suggests much of the same needs to be done with some of the terms you’ve grappled with. Way too much learning has been done by experience without definition based in hard-core exegesis. And yes, hard-core exegesis taken off the shelf, and lived out. But today, how many of the churched will recognize hard-core exegesis lived out?

    And to cross topics from co-opted and thus not well understood terms that should be well understood through definition, explanation, and history, how many do you think can define and explain what “The Christ, The Son of God” means? Gospel debate, anyone?

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    You wrote: “If you reclaim the abused child by loving biblically, the child may respond well to what you are doing but will he know it as love?”

    That’s a really good point. But with all respect, I think it illustrates very nicely how you’ve misread me. If you re-read the first three paragraphs of the original post, you’ll see that I’m rather plainly *not* rejecting explanation out of hand. (Note in particular the final sentences of the second and third paragraphs.) The guy I’m quoting isn’t saying that either; note the third sentence of the quote.

    When I said “more explanation is not the answer,” you seem to have heard “explanation is pointless” — but I never said any such thing; in fact, I’ve repeatedly said otherwise throughout the original post and in my reply to you. To be honest, your response feels like the reaction I get when I say “Sibboleth.” I’d be interested in exploring with you (perhaps privately would be more appropriate) how we managed to miscommunicate so thoroughly.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that “just do the right thing, and don’t worry about teaching and explaining” is a deplorable, sub-Christian way to live; I’ll cheerfully join you in debunking it.

    Where we still disagree is in when to do what. I believe that when the terms have been co-opted and people are not getting it, then more talking is pointless and they need to see it lived, so you can then say “…and *that’s* what those words *really* mean.” God did something like this in Acts 10 — the signs were all there, going all the way back to Abraham. But they didn’t really get it until God *did* what He was talking about.

    re. the gospel debate question — it’s a wonderful case in point. Most of the combatants in the present unpleasantness can give a decent, generally biblical answer to your question. Fewer can give a thorough, well-nuanced answer, and fewer still can support it from the text. BUT — even the many, who are a bit hazy on the details, know that they should conduct themselves in the debate as though the Jesus of John 17 is Lord of the universe. On any number of occasions, they’ve preferred a disobedient manner of life and discussion, and even if they get the talking right, faith without works is dead. There’s no point in fighting about the good news if we don’t live like it’s true. We’re not, and big surprise — it’s been a big, fat mess. This is not because there are differences in theology — there are *always* differences in theology, even among friends and allies.

    I know how you feel about experience, and I don’t want to hold myself up as some sort of paragon, but by way of illustration: when things began to get hot at CTS, it seemed likely to me that I’d wind up dying on some hill or other, so I looked around to see which hills were worth dying on. The one I settled on then was endeavoring to guard the unity of the faith, and I’ve worked hard to conduct myself accordingly, and place a heavy emphasis on being sure to treat everyone involved biblically *while* still carrying the debate forward. I took Galatians and Acts 15 as my patterns, and went to work. I haven’t done it perfectly, but I’ve worked hard at it, and at present, here are the results:

    1. God has given me sufficient favor in the eyes of my “enemies” that I am on speaking terms with almost everyone — two exceptions I know of, and in both cases I’ve made it clear that I want to continue talking with them. Presently, they don’t want to talk with me, but God will change that when He wills.
    2. God has given me active roles in cooperative ministry projects with people on the “other” side(s), as well as people on “my” side.
    3. I am not in a shooting war with anyone, at all, on any side.
    4. I am in rather serious theological disagreement with some of my allies in the present conflict (on the very points at issue — the content of the gospel) and we’re continuing to work together as brothers and partners as we grapple through the doctrinal issues.

    These things should be the norm, not the exception. They are possible; I’m proving it every day of my life at the moment. “But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.”

    So — as I have said before, I now say again: THIS FIGHT NOT PRIMARILY ABOUT THE DOCTRINE, NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY. It’s about believers refusing to walk worthy of their calling, and looking for a “respectable” way to get away with it.

    I haven’t made such good progress myself because I’m such a great exegete; the progress has come by trusting God’s commands, and consequently working my tail off to preserve the unity of the body of Christ. We need a lot more of that, meaning a lot of basic Christian conduct that’s presently lacking — or, failing that, some stiff church discipline. When that’s in place, then we’ll start really moving forward. Until then, any progress we make is God’s mercy on us in our rebellion, not God’s blessing on our sound exegesis. To put it in different words: more explanation isn’t going to help until we’re *doing* it, and those words have a referent in concrete-relational reality.


  5. Gary says:


    Good response and appreciated.

    It would be interesting to better understand how there may have been some lack of understanding here. And I agree that this would be a good thing to take up privately as/when we are able and so inclined.

    I know you are much, much closer to the gospel debaters than I, and I can certainly appreciate how it must be to be in the position you have chosen.

    I’ll close my side of this by putting our points together: “More explanation isn’t going to help until we’re *doing* it, and those words have a referent in concrete-relational reality.” What we’re doing in concrete-relational reality isn’t going to help if what we’re doing is not defined and appropriate per Divine Viewpoint.

    Maybe I could state this better but finished for now. Maybe this is what you’ve said all along. Your post, your close, if you so chose.

    Thanks for the expressed thoughts.


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