20 June 2013

Words mean specific things — especially God's words

by Dan Phillips

The baleful effects of postmodernism are not confined to the classroom nor lecture-hall. They can be heard and felt in home Bible studies, frequently run by someone unqualified to lead and unconnected to a local church. They are seen in the oft-heard inquiry, "What does that passage mean to you?"

Now, I don't want to be a Pharisee who pronounces the death-penalty for word-choice. That question can simply mean something like: "God's Spirit uses His unchanging word to touch each of us in individual ways, so that a text with one meaning can apply personally in a thousand manners. What personal application do you take from the one meaning of this text?" Sola-est Sola-ist couldn't object to a question like that... or shouldn't.

However the question sometimes is framed expressly to claim that nobody can really say what a text means. Its meaning is out of our grasp. In fact, its meaning isn't even our goal. If we ask ten people what a verse means, and we get ten irreconcilably different answers, that's a good thing, and all the answers are equally valid.

Yeah, see...that's a problem. And I do mean it.

Paul Henebury makes a great point at the start of his lectures on Biblical covenantalism, focusing on the first chapter of Genesis: God is the inventor of language, and Himself illustrates that words have distinct referents; they are adequate to convey meaning.

He is the first speaker: "Let there be light," He commands (Gen. 1:3). What happens next? Does a pyramid pop into existence? Or a quahog? Or the smell of fried chicken, the law of gravity, a Pyromaniacs T-shirt, Chicago's first album, or the concept of "boredom"?

No. Light happens. God said "light," God meant "light," light is what God created.

And so for each creative verbal act of the original Speaker:

  • He said "expanse," and an expanse is what He got (vv. 6-7)
  • He said "waters," and waters is what He got (v. 9)
  • What He called "earth" was earth, and what He "seas" was seas (v. 10 — seeing a pattern, yet?)
  • He called for vegetation, and (hel-lo?) vegetation is what He got (vv. 11-12)
  • He said "lights," and lights is what He got (vv. 14-18)
  • He called for land animals, and land animals is what He got (vv. 24-25)
  • He said "Let us create man," and man is what He created (vv. 26-27)
Nor was there any utter bafflement when God addressed the first human. Adam understood perfectly well what ""You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" meant (Gen. 2:16-17), apparently well
enough to tell someone else what it meant (Gen. 3:2-3). There is no record of Adam blinking in hopeless befuddlement. God chose words that conveyed meaning; and that's what they did.

Scripture is a collection of God's words. They convey meaning clearly enough and adequately enough. I don't say say "always simply," but I do say clearly and adequately.

My observation from 40+ years is that the real problem is seldom the clarity of God's word. Or perhaps I should say, it is the clarity of God's word... coupled with human unwillingness to bow the knee.

But that isn't a word-problem. It's a heart-problem.

Dan Phillips's signature


Cathy M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

Yeah, instead of bowing the knee to Scripture, which is God speaking to us, people would rather bend Scripture to fit their sinful desires and urges. and this is the same thing that the Bible tells us we need to be saved from.

It is like it isn't enough that He humbled Himself enough to become man, be despised and ridiculed by people and by Satan as He walked the earth, then endured torment from man and Satan before taking the wrath of God in our place and defeating death to save us. No, He must also change His righeous standard of holiness to suit our needs in order for us to accept Him. Something is wrong with that line of thought and if people thought of applying it in every instance of human relations on the earth, they migh get it. Nobody is utterly absurd enough to do so in all facets of life, though. Only with the parts they are comfortable with.

J. E. Smith said...

'Does a pyramid pop into existence? Or a quahog? Or the smell of fried chicken, the law of gravity, a Pyromaniacs T-shirt, Chicago's first album, or the concept of "boredom"?'

This is the inside of Dan's mind...

And I like it.

Seriously though, next to the sound teaching, that is one of my favorite aspects of TWTG - the creative writing part. Most helpful...and enjoyable to boot, tnx.

DJP said...

LOL, and thanks. You say similarly to a Scottish professor.

Tim Mullet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herding Grasshoppers said...

Oh Dan, that phrase (What does it mean to you?) is the bane of women's Bible studies in particular! I called my own mom on it just recently. To be fair, she was framing a question about application but not thinking through how the ladies in her group might 'hear' the question.

I seem to remember you doing a "Next!" post along these lines. Something like, "What would the passage say if you were dead?"

Love it.

Tim Mullet said...

Hey Dan,When you say words have meaning, are you saying:
1) a group of words, read in context, convey a specific meaning, which the author intends, and we are not to relativize the author's intention?
2) individual words always have specific referents? Example light means light irrespective of context

J. E. Smith said...

Your welcome. Mr. Frank has a fair bit of that going on as well (orphan baby tears, wow, just...wow)and is perhaps one of the reasons I loiter here, again besides the soundness and astuteness.

BTW, the next to last sentences in the post remind me of that Samuel Clemens quote (while not known for piety was also very astute in his own way) when asked about his feelings regarding Bible passages that were difficult to understand.

Jim Pemberton said...

The most challenging thing about leading a group of people in a Bible study is the dynamic of individuals in the group interacting with the text in dialog. Bunny trails into associated pet issues are all too common and leaders need to be able to handle distracting individual interpretation both pastorally and judiciously. You want to shut down a bad direction while bringing the detractor in line with the teaching at hand in such a way that (s)he is willing to own the right direction of thought even if (s)he doesn't ultimately buy the conclusion.

Michael said...

Jim, LOL, thanks for your contribution!

rfb said...

The desire for autonomy and the consequent rebellion against authority.

God Incarnate. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

What does it take to make this Person, this Supreme Being marvel?

Someone with comprehension of the chain of command, who has authority, and the proper response to it.

And He labels that as faith, and not just any kind; "great faith".

Cathy M. said...

I wish I could say the things you do. Recently, a friend told me that Adam could be interpreted to mean a class of people rather than an individual. I asked, "why then would we need a savior if only an individual of a particular class fell?" He said, "well... I didn't say I believed it, only that it was a possible interpretation." If I were smart, I'd have said what you did in this post. Of course, now that I'm loaded for bear, I'll only run into tigers.

Grant H said...


I have found that those most prone to play loose with the text of Scripture see themselves as believers.

For my part (and I am not alone in this), unbelief stems from reading Scripture in its plain, perspicuous sense (with due consideration for context and genre, of course).

I agree with your critique of all-too-many evangelical Bible study groups. When I frequented such gatherings, the biblical text often became a sort of keynote for group therapy, or the open gate for a digressive hobby-horse derby.

A voice remonstrating "But what is the text/God really saying here?" would seem a churlish party-pooper. That voice was sometimes my own.

The "What does this mean for you?" subjectivism you rue is, I think, a by-product of the popular evangelical notion that the Bible is a sort of divine instruction manual with clear-cut answers for every life-problem, a panacea for the ills felt by every ailing soul. It's God's message to you, individually, mediating that all-important personal relationship with Him that distinguishes atomised you from The Lost. You bring all your subjective woes to the Bible, and it will speak to them with tailor-made solutions straight from God.

A demotic bibliolatry is as much to blame for this state of affairs as that tricksy stock villain postmodernism.

DJP said...

Cathy M — thanks, and very nicely said. I pity da tigers and da bears.

Eric said...


Thanks for again addressing a real problem.

Illustration: The following are parts of the response of a pastor (posted yesterday) in an ostensibly reformed denomination to the question "Yes, but is there such thing as ‘the clear teaching of Scripture.’ at all?”

Portions of answer: "The simple fact that there are hundreds of doctrines and deviations within the larger umbrella of Christianity (today and throughout history) shows that in many (some would say most) situations there is no such thing as: “the clear teaching of Scripture.” Thoughtful, well-meaning Christians disagree on just about every point one can imagine."

"That said, I suppose things like, “Does God exist?” and the divinity of Jesus are fairly central, but even there, I’d be happy to have an agnostic humanist in my group, or a God-believer who thinks Jesus was simply a person highly in touch with God, but not different ontologically from any other person in history – yet still worth following and emulating."

My heart sinks when I read this, yet I realize that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. God's truth has always been challenged/dismissed and always will be. I appreciate your clear thinking and apt illustrations.

Michael Coughlin said...

Good post, Dan, well written.

trogdor said...

As many have noted, people who object that the Bible is impossible to understand expect that you'll understand them just fine. As if they have better communication skillz than the one who invented language and all the body parts necessary for it.

The thing about "what does it mean to you?" is that it places the ultimate authority on the listener rather than the author. God gives us some words as a nice starting point from which we can pontificate the best wisdom we can muster. It's a nice scam, really - we get the cover of being "Biblically based", but we just get to say and believe whatever we want anyway. It doesn't matter if what it means to me is impossible to get from the actual text since I'm the final judge. Sure, the words might say that, but we know better now, don't we? Nothing has changed since Eden.

On a final note, it's a pleasant surprise that nobody has (yet) used this to launch into a tirade for a certain 17th-century English translation. Have their Googles and interwebs all been broken?

Morris Brooks said...

Your last line was your best line, which is the real root of the problem.

Terry Rayburn said...


The first sentence in your [very good] post forced me to look up "baleful". Heard it many times. Couldn't have defined it. Good word.

Your second sentence contains, of course, part of the problem: "unqualified to lead".

It would be helpful if at least SOMEBODY in the group had a basic grasp of biblical interpretation, doctrine, etc...

...yet with enough humility to say, "Okay, that's a tough one. I'm going to study that one a little this week, and share the results next week with you. Would that be okay, so we can move on?" (As opposed to just "making something up" about the passage to get by)

One last sidenote:

When I have somebody questioning, "God couldn't really mean that [the obvious], could He?" -- I often ask something like, "Okay, before we determine if He really meant that, let me ask you...if He DID really mean that, would you be willing to submit to that?"

This gets to the heart problem before bothering with the exegesis. Often the truth then just opens itself.

I've found this effective in regard to the sovereignty of God in salvation, for example -- as in, "IF you honestly thought that Scripture teaches that God has chosen some before the foundation of the world for salvation, and then has effectually saved them through the New Birth, apart from their 'decision', would you accept it, or would you say 'I could never serve a God like that!'"

Once they bow the knee, the verses often come alive.

DJP said...

Yes, when someone says "I have a question for you," my standard response is "...and if 'I don't know' counts, I have an answer!"

To the rest of your comment: excellent. I'll try to keep that in mind.

Kerry James Allen said...

"Once they bow the knee, the verses often come alive."

Thanks Terry, I'm going to use that.

Paul Reed said...


"there is no such thing as: “the clear teaching of Scripture.” Thoughtful, well-meaning Christians disagree on just about every point one can imagine."'

I must point out that the fact that we don't know the answer to a question, doesn't mean that all answers are equally valid, or that there isn't an answer.

I sympathize with your question. To illistrate your point: Here's an important topic: education of children. Suppose I were to ask the authors of the Pyromanics blog to give me detailed specifics (not general principles) regarding the education of children. Is it okay to send my kids to public school? Is home schooling required, preferred, or just an alternative? Specifically, tell me under what circumstances is it okay to send my kid to public school. Am I putting my kids at risk by sending them to public school? And give me your detailed thoughts on college as well.

I'd be willing to bet you they'd be disagreement among even the authors of this blog. Now consider that this group has similar upbringings, culture, language, class, and is so alike that they were able to form a blog together. Now let's do the same question on education of children, but to the entire Pyromaniacs Blogroll. Imagine the variety of opinions you'd get with this hand-selected group, and yet you've only carved out a miniscule section of Christianity. What do you suppose a Christian living in the 8th century in a different country would give to this question?

Despite our frustration with questions like these, I don't think we can lose faith. We must not lean on our own understanding, but trust in God, and always seek His will. And we must never become relativistic and assume questions don't have concrete, actual answers.

Terry Rayburn said...


You make some good points, but we don't want to equate "answers" with "meaning".

Dan's point is that actual scriptures "mean" actual things.

That's different than questions about application.

In fact, that's a foundational principle of Bible interpretation, IMHO -- that we should first determine the "meaning" of the passage -- and only then do our best to apply it.

So, using your example, we won't want to jump straight to the question, "Should we send our child to public school?"

First, we take each passage related to child-rearing, seek the "meaning" of each passage, and only then ask the application questions.

We chose not to send our son to public school, if I may throw a worm into the can :)

Of course, this is the value of having a good overall knowledge of the Bible -- we can often short-cut to applications without starting from scratch.

Kerry James Allen said...

Memo to Frank and Dan: If you want to really light the fuse, write a post on public schooling, Christian schooling, and home schooling. It will probably make MMA look like a Sunday School class!

Eric said...

Hi Paul,

To be clear, I was quoting someone else's answer and confusion.