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.