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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is the meaning in the words?

At the end of a truly hectic January, in which I had deadlines for five papers, attended a conference in Chicago, and started as an Alameda County Planning Commissioner, I was asked by the interim pastor at last Thursday’s board meeting to consider being available to preach this coming Sunday. He’s in over his head, too, because he just finished candidating to become our permanent pastor — we called him on Saturday with a more than 90% vote of the congregation — and then Monday morning he took off to attend the denomination’s Midwinter Conference, where he will stay the week and take a class, and then may need to go on to Pennsylvania and visit a member of the congregation who is at her dying father’s bedside with her husband.

The passage that is up is I John 3:11-24. Not a passage for the faint of heart.
11This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. 13Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. [NIV]

Going to the Greek doesn’t help. John is in a stream of consciousness mode and he’s speaking in the kind of extreme terms that Jesus did when He said things like this:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Mat. 5:20-22 [NIV])
We run off looking for how to turn such statements into rules and miss the point that this is ultimately about us becoming more like God by spending time with Him, how important it is to do that, and how impossible to live any other way. But that’s the sermon.

Anyway as I began to think about this, I picked up a book by A. W. Tozer which I have found quite helpful when I ponder things in Scripture that don’t yield well to linear western thinking — The Knowledge of the Holy — and I ran across this passage:
For our soul’s sake we must learn to understand the Scriptures. We must escape the slavery of words and give loyal adherence to meanings instead. Words should express ideas, not originate them. We say that God is love; we say that God is light; we say that Christ is truth; and we mean the words to be understood in much the same way that words are understood when we say of a man, “He is kindness itself.” By so saying we are not stating that kindness and the man are identical, and no one understands our words in that sense. (p. 98, emphasis mine)
You may not believe us here at Better Bibles when we say that it’s the meanings that are important and that the words are only tools to get to the meanings. But will you believe A. W. Tozer when he says the same thing?

35 Comments:

At Tue Jan 29, 04:42:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Maybe.......it could......be just... John's personal opinions and not the actual words of God

 
At Tue Jan 29, 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Steve,

I'm not sure what you mean. If you believe in something like plenary inspiration (as I certainly do), then John's words are God's words.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 06:08:00 AM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Well, that was the very idea, that MAYBE it was not God's word. It COULD BE John injecting his opinions. To me when you see something that runs absolutely counter to the mind and manner of Jesus, like eternal damnation, with not consideration given to forgiveness you need to at least question the whether this is Jesus or man speaking.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 06:38:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

Jesus did mention eternal damnation (Mark 9: 47-48)(Matt 5: 30)(Luke 12: 5) as examples.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

OK I give up. I take these saying as metaphorical, taking into account that this was a middle eastern audience 2,000 years ago. If you believe that a murderers will always to to hell forever, and that we should cut off our limbs and poke out our eyes that's your right, but its not my Jesus. I don't really want to argue about this further. I had no Idea this was a Bible literalist site, I will refrain from posting here.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 09:20:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Steve, (if you're still reading)

I am anything but literalist. I certainly think God speaks metaphorically.

But I also think that the Bible is exactly the way God wants it to be (my version of plenary inspiration). We don't get to just discount things we find hard to take. We grapple with them and come to terms with the fact that we are not able to understand an infinite God.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 09:32:00 AM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

All right one last time.

I don't view the Bible as you do so I don't view myself as discounting something that is hard to take, that's a little partonizing.

So you do believe God mean't that "...no murderer shall have eternal life in him", its just that we are unable to understand why the infinite God in this case would say something that didn't appear to allow for Grace or repentance, but it really did allow for it, or is the murderer really out of luck and we just can't know why?

 
At Wed Jan 30, 10:05:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

Without repentance there cannot be forgiveness of sin.
Can a murderer be saved, yes. If he/she does not truly repent of his/her sin then, no.
The reward of repentance brought about by faith in the work of Jesus on the cross is eternity with God in heaven and then upon the new earth on Christ's return.

Equally, the price for not doing the above is, as taught consistently in scripture, is eternity in hell.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Yes, I know all about that

BUT

That's not what the quote in question(let alone the context) said and that very unequivocalness, i.e. it DID'NT allow for Grace or repentance that prompted my proposal.

Please note that I did not say that it was. Hence MAYBE, IT COULD, AND BE JUST.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 11:10:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Cool comment thread...

I just wanted to say I love this phrase:

"Going to the Greek doesn’t help. John is in a stream of consciousness mode..."

My take on Jesus' words: hyperbole-exaggeration for rhetorical effect.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 12:14:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Steve,

If it helps, it's worth noting that Moses and David, heroes of the faith, were both murderers. And Paul counts himself as complicit in Stephen's murder.

I believe this is about heart attitudes. All these men changed profoundly and accepted God's forgiveness.

John, as I read him, is talking about getting one's heart out of the place of hatred in to a place of love and compassion. And this is not something humans can just will themselves into. It involves us being open to God doing it in our hearts.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Richard,

Yup, and David was called a man after God's own heart

As to John/God? you and I are in agreement. Sometimes, I wonder if God doesn't also open my heart for me even when sometimes I have closed my heart.

Thanks

 
At Wed Jan 30, 02:38:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Since we're talking about Jesus and John as we read him and openness and hearts, I've played with some of your words (again), Rich. I mean to be fair (and not at all mean)!

But I do think you're comments here, Steve Cat (whoever you are), help us ask good questions about us, and God and his words.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 09:43:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Wed Jan 30, 09:45:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

I'd like to offer the following comments in response to the sentences "We must escape the slavery of words and give loyal adherence to meanings instead."

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

Thanks for the consideration. ;-)

Jeremy

 
At Wed Jan 30, 11:24:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Jeremy,
I think we've been down this road before. We are not saying that words are somehow umimportant.

We are saying that they are only tools to get to the meaning. Tozer (not me, but A. W. Tozer) was making the point that in his experience Christians misunderstand Scripture because they take words as ends in themselves rather than means to get to meaning, which is the real thing.

You somehow turn that important insight into an assertion that words are unnecessary. That's not what we're saying at all.

 
At Thu Jan 31, 08:31:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

"We are saying that they are only tools to get to the meaning."

Jeremy, your funny wordlessnesses (all 5 of 'em) prove meanings (or make meanings, or what have you) without words!

Rich, you can credit Plato for your words (or the meaning you would have behind them, I suppose). But to idealize "the meaning" (as in something singular) and then to hand someone else some words as a puzzle decoder of sorts assumes so many things: 1. you can only have one meaning when you mean something; 2. "the meaning" you have is the one and only one you intend; 3. wordlessness doesn't signal meaning (or help to unlock meaning the way words do); 4. words are only to get to "the meaning"; and most importantly, 5. meaning is fixed in nature, is discoverable by Aristotle's ὁ λόγος method, and is independent of people, whether the people are you or the one you're talking with or the ones overhearing you. Funny: Jesus for John means "the word" (which is Aristotle's ὁ λόγος with our big twist to turn these assumptions on their head). And I read Jeremy as saying, without words, that it's silly to try to separate words and meanings especially when thanking meaning-ful people "for the consideration." So Jesus doesn't make these assumptions (of Plato), or use the mere tools (of Aristotle), does he? (There's more on that in my recent post)

 
At Thu Jan 31, 09:27:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

"And I read Jeremy as saying, without words, that it's silly to try to separate words and meanings especially when thanking meaning-ful people "for the consideration."

Ah.. subtly is not lost on all. :-)

 
At Thu Jan 31, 12:09:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Kurk and Jeremy,
It's not silly at all to separate words from meanings. There are plenty of meanings which have no words, and words which have no meanings (at least not in the ordinary sense).

An example of the former. When you tell your wife you will wash the dishes, you are referring to a category for which we have no word in English. (If you were to walk away without having done the pots and pans, your wife would have a legitimate beef.) If I were to ask you if a sauce pan is a dish, the answer is no. Ditto the silverware. But we have a category which includes pots and pans, dishes, and silverware for which there is no word. Pragmatically we use the word dishes in context to refer to this category. It's this pragmatic aspect of words that shows that the meaning and the word are more loosely connected than Jeremy, at least, wants to allow.

An example of a word that has no meaning is the which actually functions to give information about other words. It "means" something like the speaker believes that his/her interlocutor(s) can figure out which of the entities referred to by the word it modifies is intended. That is usually interpreted as the meaning 'unique'. But it's easy to find examples that show that that isn't true. A dog ran up and bit him on the finger. In normal use there is no requirement that we know which finger.

What I'm arguing for is a recognition that the connection between words and their referents is loose enough that there is a large pragmatic (use-related) component. That's how meanings can change over time.

I'll pass over the question of norms of expression which play an important role in communication (and are why Jeremy's "silence" is an effective argument).

 
At Thu Jan 31, 01:04:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

There are plenty of meanings which have no words, and words which have no meanings (at least not in the ordinary sense).

and nice examples of them here, Rich.

But the reason it's silly to try to separate words from meanings, I believe, each of your examples shows. There will be absolutely no words without persons who use them, no meanings without persons who get and make them. You're playing Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" game all over again. But as much as you (or Chomsky) try to find meaning away from words (or from sentences), you're always forced to talk with someone about them or with them or, in Jeremy's case, without them (both the words or sentences and the meanings you and they find or make in, with, by, and out of them; but never apart from them). As careful as you want to be in explicating all this, you can't deny a word its meanings unless there's no person listening or talking and having wordful meanings. Know what I mean?

 
At Thu Jan 31, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

"It's this pragmatic aspect of words that shows that the meaning and the word are more loosely connected than Jeremy, at least, wants to allow.

Richard,

What makes you think this? I don't disagree with you here. I believe you've misinterpreted me. Seems you inferred a particular meaning from my original post that is incorrect. I guess I'll have to be clearer next time.

Jeremy

 
At Thu Jan 31, 06:04:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Kurk,
Hmm. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

I'm making claims based on the assumption that most of language works in what Ed Hall called "high context" communication mode. The exact opposite of what you're charging me with.

So my claim is that there are at least three dimensions of word meaning:

reference -- the category in the mind of the speaker that the word "points" to. (Categories are internally complex and are of different types, but for now we can skip over that.)

framing -- the way the word gets you to look at the referent. (Remember my scatological examples, sh*t, poop, dung, stool, doodoo, etc.)

and

pragmatics -- how the word is used to communicate in context, which, although based on the above, may be different

You seem to be accusing me of leaving that last piece out. But what I am saying is that pragmatics is so important can even override some of the other aspects of the meaning. The fact of pragmatic meaning in language is exactly Pike's point contra Chomsky, and I fully agree with Pike.

But pragmatics is also why I want to say that words and meanings are not just two sides of the same coin.

The fact that I claim words have a life (semi-)independent of their meaning seems to cause you repeatedly to put me in the category of a Platonist or Aristotelian, which I just don't understand. I reject the notion that categories exist outside of the mind and that there is always an excluded middle. (On the other hand I use Aristotelian logic at a meta-level to argue because the cost of renegotiating the grounds of argument is too high. And with deductive logic we know what we can and can't do.)

It's this pragmatic flexibility of words that allows you to use the word dish for all the washable stuff after a meal, even though there's no word for that category, and it allows us to understand things like the now-too-common spoonerism in the following sentence (recently uttered at a high level official meeting I attended a week or so back.)

"If he's only worried about the money, he can be renumerated from a number of sources."

 
At Fri Feb 01, 01:49:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

"If he's only worried about the money, he can be renumerated from a number of sources."

Rich,
First, let me say quickly and emphatically that I don't want to put you in any category. If I did, I'd find myself there with you right away.

We're not disagreeing about pragmatics but about method in general. It's the issue of inserting logic coldly as the "natural" standard of words, meanings, and even whether there's any level of reference, framing, or pragmatics.

If we go back to an earlier comment of yours, maybe I can illustrate. You say: "An example of a word that has no meaning is the which actually functions to give information about other words." Of course, right away you say: "It 'means' something like the speaker believes...".

So do this, and watch all that change: read aloud the sentence you ended your last comment with (the one I start mine with). Now read it again, and stress the "the" differently. Suddenly, we think we hear a difference in meaning. Of course. And now we're ready and able logically to analyze whether there's a referential or a framing or a pragmatic difference in meaning inferred. So we observe the rules, observe the different sounds and also observe our rules about why the difference infers different meanings.

Here's the catch: not that we can see rules, but that we somehow pretend that they're "natural." To catch ourselves in the catch, we can do this: say the sentence aloud with a different stressing and intonation (all playing around the "the"). Now, we have a choice: to revise the rule of nature we first observed with "exceptions" or to observe that there are new rules for the new contexts. Again, the temptation is to logic as if we're observing some phenomenon that's already there, that's "natural." It's what it is; and it's not what it's not (and I'm still talking about our rules, and their exceptions).

So here's where it gets really interesting. True story: one of the ESL students here just won a poetry writing contest, against educated native speakers of English in the same contest. She uses "the" in a not native way (and we're talking about her writing now, not speaking it). So there's pragmatics, of course! But whose "the" is most natural now?

The thing I love about ESL learning or any second language learning is that it involves those people-positions of being on the outside (and on the inside). It's Pikes etics and emics. It's always person above logic. It's always the observer changing both the data and herself or himself by observing.

(As C.S. Lewis reflects on the Hebrew psalms, he does this as an outsider, as a literary critic and as a Christian and therefore in his words as a "novice." And yet, he does it, and by reflecting it, he changes it and it changes him. What kind of logic is that? And he finds these second meanings, some the author may have intended and some entirely "lucky" to use his term again. Then, in reflecting on God, he comes to two sorts of conscious experience, which he also applies to words and meanings, and which he calls the consciousnesses of "contemplation" and "enjoyment"—discussed some here at “tools of C.S. Lewis”. The issue is subjectivity, and personal perspective in observation, in method, and how that all changes personally with subjective observation. When Pike neglected person above logic, he found himself in a pickle or two.)

"the faint of heart" (as you began your scripture quotation in this post) may change. Method can reduce to cold logic and pretended objectivity. But language is always personal (which is why words have meaning). What am I missing?

 
At Fri Feb 01, 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Re the following quote. How do you know that Jesus is speaking through Lewis just as truly you believe John is? Must be more than Canon!

"As C.S. Lewis reflects on the Hebrew psalms, he does this as an outsider, as a literary critic and as a Christian and therefore in his words as a "novice." And yet, he does it, and by reflecting it, he changes it and it changes him. What kind of logic is that? And he finds these second meanings, some the author may have intended and some entirely "lucky" to use his term again. Then, in reflecting on God, he comes to two sorts of conscious experience, which he also applies to words and meanings, and which he calls the consciousnesses of "contemplation" and "enjoyment"

 
At Fri Feb 01, 02:10:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Oops I meant isn't speaking

no edit function huh?

 
At Sat Feb 02, 12:39:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger said...

No man cometh unto the meaning but by the word.

 
At Sat Feb 02, 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

(wordlessly grunts, shakes head and rolls eyes, as a result Solarblogger clearly understands his meaning)

 
At Sat Feb 02, 03:05:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

(Jeremy wonders if Peter hears and sees God's grunts, eyes rolling, and head shaking or merely reads of them.)

 
At Sun Feb 03, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Yes, Jeremy, I do regularly sense God communicating with me in non-verbal ways, and occasionally also in verbal ones. I accept that there is an issue of subjectivity here, that I cannot prove to a third party that this really is communication from God. But the Bible clearly speaks for example of letting the peace of God be the arbiter in one's heart. This sense of the peace of God is non-verbal communication from God, as is also the opposite sense when I fall into some kind of sin. But this is a quite different topic.

 
At Mon Feb 04, 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Have any of you ever watched Meerkat Manor? Yes, it's anthropomorphized and all, but even dialing back for the slick Hollywood scripting, you'll be amazed at the complexity of the wordless communication. All sorts of meanings are wordlessly conveyed about social rank and privilege, warnings and threats, and negotiations about who gets to sleep with whom (strictly about the business of who's allowed to have pups).

I continue to be amazed at how passionately people resist the clear evidence that words are simply tools to express meanings. Something any even half-reflective bilingual will tell you with a shrug of the shoulders and an "of course".

 
At Mon Feb 04, 02:42:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

This half-reflective bilingual (sometimes passionately other times not) is grateful for the conversation, and here also for all the words and silences that friends mean as sarcasm, fun, puns, jokes, evidence, and just simple tools. I also enjoyed just the preview of Meerkat Manor with the one so subjectively reflecting: "the stakes have never been higher, but this time the enemy...is us."

 
At Tue Feb 05, 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

John Hobbins' post Why systematic theologians make poor interpreters of the Bible: Exodus 32:9-15 as a case in point seems to me to make this point rather well. The true meaning of the utterance is not what the words say but involves the pragmatics of the situation. I might also suggest that authors of well-known books on Systematic Theology do not make the best Bible translators either - regular readers here will know who I have in mind.

 
At Wed Feb 06, 03:50:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Peter: "Why systematic theologians make poor interpreters of the Bible"...I might also suggest that authors of well-known books on Systematic Theology do not make the best Bible translators either

Sometimes inexpert outsiders do make better sense (i.e., also see the multiple meanings). Case in point, C.S. Lewis reflecting on the psalms. He begins:

“This is no work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn't want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”

 
At Wed Feb 06, 06:24:00 PM, Blogger mike said...

Jeremy,

I'd like to respond to your five points:

1. This
2. Elephant
3. Plural
4. five
5. Is

 
At Fri Feb 08, 01:01:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger said...

"(wordlessly grunts, shakes head and rolls eyes, as a result Solarblogger clearly understands his meaning)"

I suppose that on the basis of the above words I do.

But even granting that there is a lot of non-verbal communication is a side issue. What I am attacking is the idea that with the Bible, what we are dealing with is a matter where we all know the meanings before coming to it, and are therefore at liberty to iron the words out so that these meanings are clearer to other people.

The case against that was best made for my by Robert Alter in his introduction to his Genesis: A New Translation. And Alter does not read the text as a Systematic Theologian. But neither does he work to smooth out the readings for the modern reader, an enterprise that I think has some merit for new readers, but whose products should not displace the more raw translations of past times.

 

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