What’s in a Word?

Edward M. Panosian

This article comes to us from the pages of Faith for the Family, originally published in 1974. Some of the terms discussed in the article have shifted their meaning since that time, but that shifting nature of language is precisely the point the article is making. In consequence, you will have to bear with some dated terms, but make application to the terminology of today and the ongoing responsibility to consider the impact and influence of carefully chosen (and in some cases manipulated) terminology.

What’s in a word? How much potential for confusion lies in a grouping of letters which comprises, as Webster phrases it, “an articulate sound or series of sounds which symbolizes and communicates an idea”? How often do context and intonation alter the meaning of “the smallest unit of speech that has meaning when taken by itself”? What ideas are really communicated by the words we use?

There “are a number of words in common usage today whose meaning is quite altered from the meaning of the word when it was “coined.” Theological words are especially susceptible to the changes of time. Christians, therefore, should be acquainted with such multiple-definition words, so that, when we speak, our listener understands which meaning we attach to those words.

One of the most misused words is “love.” Scriptural love is not sentimental or maudlin. It is not spineless, or weak, or without character and conviction. It is neither anemic nor careless. The love taught by the Bible is not tolerant of any offense to truth. Love is strong and manly; it is active and aggressive in its struggle with all that would offend its object — it is jealous and zealous. But it is not wearied. Love is the accompaniment of truth — “love in the truth” (II John 1), “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). I Corinthians 13, describing love, teaches that “charity (love) rejoices in the truth” (verse 6).

In spite of the true meaning of love, how much unholiness today is excused in the name of “love”? “Liberals” and “New Evangelicals” downgrade Bible believing Christians for their lack of “love” when we point out movements which deviate from the Word of God. But this definition of love actually means “tolerance” and “compromise with error.” This is not Scriptural love. God is love, but love is not the essence of God. The love of God is also coupled with the holiness of God.

“Divine” is another word which embraces far too much ambiguity today. Once it spoke clearly of a description of Deity; it was what pertained to God; it celebrated His praise; it was holy. But the careful hearer has come to sense in contemporary usage a diminution of its excellence and its exalted uniqueness. A third level has emerged between Deity and humanity — more than human, but less than God — a level which at once elevates man and lowers God. This carries enough of the hint of old-line “Modernism” (deify man and humanize God) to give us warning.

Today fudge is “divine,” a vocal solo is “divine,” a boyfriend or girlfriend is “divine,” a view is “divine,” an experience is “divine,” and — far more insidiously — man is “divine.” Some readers may consider these common expressions harmless and not to be taken seriously. However, a careless handling of divine truth may lead thoughtlessly to a carelessness of the truly divine.

Much is heard today the necessity for “dialogue”; two or more persons discuss a matter in hope of arriving at sound principles of action or attitude. This is surely a sensible procedure in matters of this world. It is wise to borrow brains, to seek the benefit of the knowledge and experience of another on a subject in which you are less proficient. “Two heads are better than one” is an adage often heard and often true.

But in the spiritual realm, the truth of the adage depends on the heads and the hearts. If a person has not been regenerated by the grace of God — in soul and in mind — if he has not become a new creation hi Christ Jesus, his head is still infected with the contamination of sin; he cannot know the things of the Spirit of God. He has not the mental equipment with which to examine spiritual truth which can be only spiritually discerned. He may be wise in ways temporal, but ignorant of ways eternal. For the believer to engage in dialogue with an unbeliever on eternal matters is folly for the believer.

In “dialogue,” certain ground rules are implied: 1) I do not possess the truth of the matter to be discussed; 2) I can learn truth from you and you from me; 3) the composite of both our understandings will be superior to that of either of us alone. These may be valid in considerations of no spiritual significance. These may be valid also when two believers consider a spiritual matter, each seeking to be taught by the Spirit of God, Who indwells only believers. Where God has spoken, the Christian’s authority has been declared. Christians, who accept the absolute authority of the written Word of God, should not sit down with those who do not believe and engage in “dialogue” on a matter which can be answered only by the Bible. Amos asked, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).

Dialogue, as it is most commonly used today, stands for a diabolic device of deception. It is a reflection of rebellious man’s refusal to submit to the eternal “Thus saith the Lord.” It is not a route to clarity and truth, but a cloak of falsehood and confusion.

“Unity” is another multi-definitioned word today. How often do we hear of ecumenical actions being applauded as assisting in the answer to our Lord’s prayer “that they may be one.” Yet the verse continues: “even as we are one” (John 17:22). When the reader of this petition to the Father examines how Christ and the Father are one, he will then understand in what sense Christ prays for the unity of those who “have kept [His] word” (John 17:6). Clearly Christ and the Father are one in nature, one in essence, in purpose, in mission, in eternality, in truth, in holiness, and in countless other characteristics.

In these and much more the Lord prays that believers shall know true unity.

Only believers, those who “have kept thy word,” can know this unity. Not believers with unbelievers, not Christians with representatives of other religions, “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? … and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” (II Corinthians 6:14-16). There is a blessed bond of unity in the Faith, but, as Martin Luther put it, “Cursed be that unity for which the Word of God must be put aside.”

The Christian believer must be jealous for the truth; that jealousy will usually place him outside the camp of this world. One world, one church, one language, one race, one government — except in God’s own consummation of the age and in His time — are not the goals of Christ, but of Antichrist. The God of Heaven commands separation from the world as we know it; but even now we can know that unity in the Spirit with those who are and will be citizens of the heavenly kingdom by faith in its King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Another honorable word in Christian history, a word which once spoke clearly but has since become loosely applied, is “evangelical.” Very simply, “evangelical” stands for those aligned with the Gospel, the good news, the evangel of God’s love and grace. It was perhaps first widely used to describe the position of the sixteenth century reformers who emphasized that the essence of the Gospel is the fact that sinful man may be regenerated by God’s grace through faith in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, not by works, sacraments, or other ecclesiastical ministrations. The term “evangelical” was applied to Protestants generally by their Romanist opponents.

Through the years the word took on the character of a designation for the less formal, less liturgical, less confessional attitude within Protestant Christianity; especially in Europe, “evangelical” churches were distinguished from the “confessional” churches. In the Church of England, particularly since the eighteenth century, “evangelical” has described a movement tending away from the ecclesiastical or institutional and toward the more personal or experiential aspects of Christianity. It became also a term for the revival which began in that century in England and spread to the American colonies.

Historically, the most prominent emphasis (even in Roman Catholic dictionaries) implied in “evangelical” has been on man’s justification by faith and his ultimate appeal to the absolute authority of the infallible Scriptures for all his rule of life. This has led the true evangelical to be zealous in practical Christian living, not merely orthodox, but actively seeking the conversion of sinners. In the theological spectrum, “evangelical” came to suggest the historical approach opposed to the inroads of “Liberalism,” “Modernism,” and other forms of infidelity. To be “evangelical” was to be conservative in theology.

The last quarter century has witnessed an interesting deception. We hear much less of “evangelical” than we do of the new term, “New Evangelical.” There is something very interesting about man’s preference for something new. The new is preferred because the old is judged to be worn out, embarrassing, no longer efficient, out of style, or in some other way undesirable. But for whatever motives, an ill-disguised program of the blurring of clarity has been witnessed, which has compounded confusion in the nominally Christian church.

Of particular significance was an article in Christian Life magazine for March, 1956, titled, “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” The implied affirmative answer tried to show that evangelical theology has exhibited: 1) a more friendly attitude toward science (thus subtly seeming to agree with the decades-old charge by infidels that Bible believers are enemies of true science; 2) a willingness to re-examine beliefs concerning the work of the Holy Spirit (now having produced the horrible harvest of confusion of the tongues movements); 3) a shift away from “extreme dispensationalism” (thus castigating the far more commonly moderate version of the teaching); 4) an increased emphasis on scholarship (again sprinkling the suggestion that evangelicals were traditionally ignorant); 5) a more definite recognition of social responsibility (which must mean that evangelicals had been socially irresponsible); and 6) a growing willingness of evangelical theologians to converse with liberal theologians (so-called “dialogue”).

In this article there is the obvious shift away from the historic conflict between truth and error toward the compromise of disobedient truth with respect-seeking error. The “New Evangelical” is neither friend nor true son of the historic evangelical.

There are many other religious words which have acquired dangerous implications. Some terms have become almost a vocabulary of “Neo-Orthodox” double-talk. In the sophisticated, double-meaning language of Karl Barth, for example, it is possible to speak of resurrection but not mean an empty tomb, of virgin birth but not without an earthly father, of the cross without any reference to the blood of Christ, of sins but not sin, of conversion without regeneration, and more. This is nothing but the prostitution of language, the assertion of an intellectualism which decries the ordinary and common as inadequate and requires an elitist veneer of “higher meaning.” It is wicked and deceptive; it is orthodox in language, but heretical in purpose.

Because of their associations, Christians are well warned against the indiscriminate religious usage of words like “encounter,” “confrontation,” “mission,” “reconciliation,” “compassion,” “brotherhood,” “puritan,” and even “decision” and “commitment,” when these are not carefully and Biblically clarified.

If a Christian’s vocabulary, his verbal communication, is indistinguishable from that of an enemy of the Gospel — not surely in profanity, but in the selection of proper words — his purposes, associations, and loyalty to truth may justly be questioned. We do well to exercise care that our values, our appearance, our music and amusements, our work, and our words show forth consistency in communicating with clarity, not confusion. If by our fruits we are known, then by our words we may at least be described.

This article was first published in Faith for the Family, July/August 1974. It is republished here by permission.