One fine South Carolina day my little family was driving down the road listening to the radio, and on came “Rudy Mancke’s Nature Notes,” a delightful little minute-long feature by a local naturalist who talks about flora and fauna in the Palmetto State. And I got a lesson for New Testament exegesis out of it. And you can, too.
A Nature Notes listener had written in for information on the Latin name for a dead shrimp found “lying against some of the pluff mud” on the Charleston coast. Our two-year-old immediately piped up from her carseat, informing us all with deep conviction, “Lying is bad!”
Lying shrimp are bad, of course. My little cutie was right—makes me so mad at Red Lobster when those little crustaceans boast about being “jumbo” but are more, well, “shrimpy.”
But that’s not what Rudy Mancke was talking about. And how do I know? Context. The words surrounding “lying” in his sentence were, of course, part of the context. And my knowledge of shrimp and mud were part of the context, too. (In my personal experience, shrimp don’t lie.)
But my two-year-old had approximately 5% of the experience of her father. She didn’t trust shrimp like I do. For all she knew, shrimp go around with their pants on fire at all times. “Lie not against the truth,” the Bible says. Well, shrimp are so low that they even lie against mud. (To which the mud replies, “What did I ever do to you?!”)
Quite clearly, my two-year-old misunderstood what she heard. And it’s her parents’ fault—the fault of all adults, really. We have let our language go to seed. Multiple senses for the same set of sounds? That’s so confusing.
The “solution” to linguistic confusion
I know the solution to this problem: teach your kids one and only one sense for every word, and insist that no other meanings exist. For “lying,” simply choose whether you and your family are going to mean “telling an untruth” or “reclining.” Then start a Facebook group to promote your chosen meaning. People will listen.
And thankfully, English has plenty of alternative words to choose from. My suggestion: make “lie” refer to reclining, and use “prevaricate” for telling an untruth. Your kids will love singing out, “Prevaricator, prevaricator, pants ignited!” (“Ignited” because “fire” means to relieve someone of his job. But then we can’t say that a dog “pants” . . . We’ll have to say he “lolls,” but then people won’t be able to “LOL” in text messages . . . Okay, this is going to take a while . . . )
Loving ice cream
It’s a funny thing, language. It just doesn’t obey the rules we make up for it. Children are hardwired by God, I would argue, to mimic the language they hear around them. When everybody they know uses “lying” to mean both “fibbing” and “resting,” they will pick it up. When everybody says “nauseous” in place of “nauseated,” kids will do the same and live happily ever after. What they won’t do is keep a silly rule their parents make up forbidding such things.
So why, parents, do some of us tell our poor progeny not to use the word “love” to express their feeling for ice cream? Am I the only one who’s heard this? We parents will correct our kids when they say, “I love vanilla-fudge-latte-moose-tracks sorbet!” “No, dear,” we’ll say, “you like it.”
We parents, when we do this, are no better than the eight-year-old who says with an exaggerated grin, “If you love the ice cream, why don’t you marry it?!” Said eight-year-old knows perfectly well what her friend means. And said eight-year-old will be heard saying precisely the same thing five minutes later, and with no self-consciousness or irony whatsoever.
So will said parent, who will say in the next minute, “I love ESPN,” “I love shrimp,” “I love sleeping.” People do what comes naturally in language and can only be forced to deviate from their linguistic grooves with considerable effort. Because our cultural institutions reward those who speak “proper” English, it’s worth learning. That’s why you’ll never hear that someone “took sick” in my house. But sometimes the effort to deny what feels linguistically natural is arbitrary, even silly.
“Love” in the New Testament
Like in Bible study. Like when we insist that the New Testament writers use a word the same way every time.
“Love” provides just as good an example in Greek as it does in English.
In 1 Corinthians 13, love is the highest of the Christian virtues. The Greek word used in that context happens to be ἀγάπη (agape—a word I’ve discussed before). And when Bible interpreters get to this fact, they sometimes get excited. Now’s their linguistic chance! It is commonly believed among American Christians that this word has a special meaning, a richly theological meaning from which it never deviates. It means, we frequently hear, “self-sacrifice for the benefit of some other person who is one’s enemy and naturally unlovable” (Kenneth Wuest,“Four Greek Words for Love.” Bibliotheca Sacra 116:463 [Jul- Sep 1959], 244–245).
And maybe, in some contexts it does mean all this. Or at least a lot of it. Jesus’ love for us, demonstrated in his drinking of the bitter cup, was surely an act of self-sacrifice. No man took his life, he said. He laid it down. And we certainly didn’t deserve that sacrifice. In the preeminent example of love in all of Scripture—greater love hath no man than this—we see something similar to the meaning the Greek word ἀγάπη is commonly supposed to have.
But what happens when we insist, like linguistic helicopter parents, that the New Testament use the word the same way every time? Grammarian Kenneth Wuest wrote that
The content of meaning of agapa[o] in the New Testament is fixed and should be so noted in its every occurrence.
So agapao can’t refer to love of ice cream? It always means self-sacrificial love for the unlovable? What about 1 John 2:15, in which we are told not to “agapao the world”? What about 1 Timothy 4:10, in which Demas is said to have forsaken Paul out of “agape for this present world”? What about the Pharisees’ tendency to “agapao” the best seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43)? (Wuest acknowledges these deviations from his norm without explaining why he’d make such an absolute statement as the one quoted above. His statements in the article about the meaning of agapao are confusing, but not wholly wrong.)
A better view of word meaning
A better way to view the meaning and use of words, in the New Testament and out of it, is provided by linguist Max Turner in his essay on “Semantics” in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (and please don’t skip the parentheses!):
A cardinal test of lexical sense is whether native language users regard proposed sentences as linguistically anomalous. ‘It is a bicycle, but it has two wheels’ would be recognized as a denial of the very sense of the word ‘bicycle.’ Conversely, the oft-suggested sense of Greek agapē (ἀγάπη) as ‘selfless, self-giving, love’ (in contrast to eros [ἔρως = sexual love], philē [φίλη = friendly liking/warmth], etc.) is demonstrably falsified by such statements as ‘And people loved (from agapaō [ἀγαπάω]) darkness [= evil] rather than light.’
In other words, ἀγαπάω (agapao) can’t mean “selfless love for the undeserving” everywhere. It just doesn’t fit.
The fact is that loving—like rejoicing and hoping and thanking—is flexible in the New Testament as it is in real life. You can “love” good things (Matt 22:37) and “love” bad things (Luke 11:43); you can “love” important things (Matt 22:39) and “love” minor things (2 Pet 2:15). You can “rejoice” over a saved sinner (Luke 15:10) and “rejoice” over a discovered coin (Luke 15:9). You can “hope” in Christ (Eph 1:12), and you can “hope” to see Jesus do a magic trick (Luke 23:8). The precise kind of “loving” meant in any given usage is clear enough from the context. “Loving” isn’t really a precise concept anyway; we all just kind of know what it means. That’s why Jesus can say “love” for God and “love” for neighbor comprise the greatest commandment, and yet never in all of Scripture is “love” defined with anything remotely like a dictionary definition.
John Frame observes wisely,
The self-giving nature of God’s love is not found so much in the word agapē as in the teaching of the Scripture about God’s love. The main reason, I think, that the New Testament writers chose the unusual word agapē to refer to God’s love is that the Septuagint translators used this word to translate the Hebrew ’ahavah. Therefore, the New Testament use of agapē reiterates and expands the concept of the love of God in the Old Testament. Its nuances, therefore, are best discovered through Bible study, rather than a study of Greek lexical stock.
The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 415.
Reading your kid and your Bible
You know just what your daughter means when she says “I love chocolate milk.” You know just what she means when she says, “I love you.” If you don’t, you don’t need a dictionary; you probably just need to spend more time with her.
If you want to know what the Bible means when it says, “Men love darkness rather than light”; if you want to know what it means when it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—the nuances are, as Frame says, “best discovered through Bible study rather than a study of Greek lexical stock.” Spend more time with your Bible and obeying your Bible, and you’ll know.
On that South Carolina day a few years ago, my two-year-old heard about a dead shrimp “lying” and her brain went “DING!” and her mouth went, “Lying is bad!” She let that loud “DING!” drown out everything else in the context.
Don’t read your Bible that way. Word studies have their place. Lexicons, too. But the Bible isn’t a list of key theological words, accompanied by concise definitions. It is a story full of poems, smaller stories, letters, commandments, instructions, explanations, songs, and other kinds of writing. In a funny way, all the hard work of developing your exegetical skills is aimed at making sure you’re doing what comes naturally.
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