Recovering Truthful Language Through Literate Biblical Preaching

During my student days at Princeton the philosopher Walter Kaufman reflected on the trends and fashions in modern Christian thought and pronounced in our own time an “age of Judas” (Introduction to Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 12). What he was saying was that the criticisms of nominal Christianity articulated by Kierkegaard more than a century earlier applied very much to America in the 1960s, and he was clearly implicating the subversive enterprise of modern theologians in particular. He prefaced his critique with some rhetorical questions:

Who would stand up against Christ and be counted his opponent? Who openly rejects the claims of the New Testament? [Imagine: at Princeton in my lifetime one could still say that and not seem ludicrous.]

But Kaufmann went on with his questions, now filling in some answers:

Who lets his “yea be yea, Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil? Certainly not the apologists who simply ignore what gives offense or, when this is not feasible, offer ‘interpretations’ instead of saying Nay. To be sure, it is not literally with a kiss that Christ is betrayed in the present age: today one betrays with an interpretation.

Many a subversive interpretation begins with a surreptitious redefinition of biblical term. Orthodox Christians, including evangelicals of many varieties, have in the past comforted themselves with assurances that none of their number would betray in this way. Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic interpretation, each in their own way, have tended to remain reliable, we feel, because we have always held up the Word of God on its own terms. Yet even as we have presumed—even insisted on—the historical reliability of our text, we may have missed the fact that the main force of the attack against a high view of Scripture, most flamboyantly represented by the likes of the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrmann, has metastasized, cleverly shape-shifted and come camouflaged after our unprotected flank. 

Antagonists for three generations, mostly from within the seminaries in which pastors are trained, have been insisting that the issue is not in any case historical truth, which they declare to be beyond recovery, but rather an appreciation of relative cultural perspective, of the sociology of knowledge and therefore of need for a ‘new’ dialectical development of meaning “in our own contemporary terms.” This can appear as a call for cultural translation, a demand that the energies of biblical scholarship be turned toward adapting the text to contemporary conditions which are seen by advocates, of course, as quite irreconcilable with the biblical view of persons and conditions. This is indeed to betray with a kiss, turning our Lord over to the dictates of our social and political culture. Not merely mistranslation, then, but actual re-writing of the Bible is now being called for in some quarters, including the dominant political sphere. Such ‘rewriting’ requires more explicit perfidy even than betrayal by interpretation, and if they are not to deny their Lord, would-be faithful pastors in North America will need to develop deliberate and faithful teaching strategies in the face of it, an antagonism unprecedented on this continent.

Pastoral Strategies

In such a spiritual war, the Church needs more rigorous, on-point preaching, a preaching that is scrupulous in its use of biblical language and openly corrective of the abuse of it in our culture. In short, we must set about to create in our own time a kind of learning which to many hostile pagan observers in the second and third centuries was characteristic of the early Church (cf. Robert Wilkens, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). For us too, I suggest, as our contemporaries become less and less literate, we must teach our congregations to become more and more literate.

One difference between a genuinely literate person and an ordinary victim of cheating words is that a literate person understands the historically determined character of the language he or she speaks, and thus is cautioned by the understanding. Nowhere is the advantage of such knowledge more essential than when a great text is considered, be it the works of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, or that great anthology of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts we call the Bible. In all such cases, as George Steiner puts it, we discover that:

…every language act has a temporal determinant. No semantic form is timeless. When using a word we wake into resonance, as it were, its entire previous history. A text is embedded in specific historical time; it has what linguists call a diachronic structure. To read fully (my italics) is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs. (After Babel)

To be interested in language as a medium for the discovery of truth is thus to approach each text, each occasion of listening, reading, or speaking, in humility. Someone else is talking. Humility in this case involves preferring the truth of the speaker’s intent to our own selfish ideas however cleverly put. In the case of the words of Scripture, the divine authors’ intent is not all that difficult to discern in context, even where it may well, as our medieval forbearers saw, have several registers of application. To get at any of these, however, we must ask about more than what a given word in a text we are expounding means to our contemporaries, for that meaning may well be a debasement of the original word in its historical context.

Let me give you a couple of simple teacherly examples. In an age such as ours, in which many people take the highest human good to be sexual freedom, “freedom,” a rather important biblical word as it happens, may have acquired a meaning so corruptive of its biblical sense as to be positively dangerous if not re-rooted in its historical and biblical context. If I ask my undergraduates what freedom means to them, they invariably answer in terms of “choice,” “autonomy,” even “liberty to define myself in terms I choose.” When I ask them if they think that semantic range would do justice to the intention of Thomas Jefferson, some pause, especially if they have studied the Declaration of Independence or his Letters. I then ask them what they think it meant to Chaucer or Wyclif, and they go blank. “What about the Knight in the Canterbury Tales who “loved trouthe, honour, freedom, and curtesye”? I ask. I have to tell them that in the fourteenth century “freedom” was glossed in bilingual dictionaries as “largesse,” generosity to others. 

This meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will confirm, is in our time preserved only in the phrase, “a free spirit,” that sort of bon vivant who may spontaneously offer to buy everyone a pint in the pub. But any such generosity – other-directed largesse or charity – is polar opposite to my students’ definition, in which the meaning of freedom is entirely self-directed. “So then,” I say, do you think that when Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), he meant that the truth would make you autonomous, a law unto yourself?” We typically then have a discussion in which they discover that they really haven’t understood Jesus at all, for the phrase is only part of a sentence in Greek which begins in the previous verse: “If you abide in my word, then shall you be truly my disciples, and then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Freedom depends, in the usage of the Lord, on a sequence of ‘if-then’ conditionals; one must abide in his word, live there. This is the sine qua non condition of being a true rather than a false disciple, and only that kind of obedience and self-effacement makes it possible to have the foggiest idea of what Jesus means by freedom. (Please note: all I have done here is to put the word in its biblical context and use the OED to do so, but the result is to clarify a necessary truth for one who would follow Jesus.)

Let us proceed. Truth is another word needing clarification. In no small part this is because the prevalent theory of truth in our time does not require a correspondence between word and deed or claim and fact, something which characterizes the correspondence theory of truth, historically fundamental to science and medicine obviously, and certainly normative both epistemologically and morally in the Bible. For those of you who remember Aristotle, whose law of non-contradiction says that something cannot be itself and a contrary at the same time, you will see that this correspondence view of truth has been common to the logic of more than biblical tradition. 

Those who have read even the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales will remember that this essentially logical sense of truth is one of the things Chaucer’s knight loved—in contradistinction to our politicians. But to his contemporaries, “truth” carried an additional meaning which owed specifically to Scripture, namely the fidelity and trustworthiness on which others could depend. That notion is still visible in the Book of Common Prayer liturgy for a marriage, in which the groom says to his bride and vice-versa, “and thereto I pledge to thee my troth,” which is to say, not just ‘I am speaking these promises to you truthfully’, but that ‘I am pledging myself to be faithful and trustworthy to you forever.’ 

In our time, of course, another theory of truth has come to be prevalent. In the pragmatic theory of truth, truth is whatever you and perhaps some of your associates choose it to be; in the words of a prominent literary theorist (Jonathan Culler), “our truth is what gets us what we want.” Needless perhaps to say it, but this theory has also been around a long time, at least since Eden. When Pilate scoffed at Jesus, saying “What is truth?” he knew very well this pragmatist debasement, that ‘truth’ in his Roman world was anything that Caesar wanted it to be. 

For Jesus, by contrast, truth was a matter of fact, not opinion, and when he said of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), he clearly meant to be understood as saying that he was the embodiment of truth, not merely of truth-telling in the mind-independent correspondence theory sense, but in the sense that he was the embodiment of faithfulness, and that he was trustworthy as no one in the world before him had ever been. 

In a solipcistic, self-referential world such as ours, the biblical meaning of these and many other words must now be taught as meaning contra mundum, enduring meaning against a corrupt and corrupting world. In our era the meaning of the word “truth” may be notoriously unstable in the minds of many, but the quality of truth as it is represented in the Word of God and the person of Jesus is not like some matter of subjective opinion, whether as ‘my truth’ or ‘our preferred narrative.’ The truth in God remains solid as a rock, yesterday, today, the same forever. To teach that effectively now, we need to re-root the word itself historically and in Scripture especially, with precision and clarity.

It seems to me that as Christians we have a crucial task before us, not just as a necessity for self-preservation but as a moral obligation to others. We must endeavor to restore to the language of fellow-believers the richness and depth of its historical and biblical meaning at the very least in our own teaching. We must show them the power of language to distinguish, to contrast not just compare, to detail the nature of created reality in Scripture and in the actual life of faithful believers. 

I want to suggest that this can be done in a few sentences in almost every homily, every sermon. For those of you whose charge is in some parish of the Church of the Blessed Power-Point Projector, it is certainly possible to do it that way, simply by putting a few words, definitions and examples on a slide. Try it instead of a video clip from a TV show or movie, and measure carefully the results after a year or so. The video-clip simply affirms the culture from which deeper meaning has been evacuated in favor of “action” or sound-bite attempts at cleverness.

Actually teaching people to think, to use the language of Scripture intelligently, will not only enable them to grasp more fully the truth of many things and the lie in multifarious claims, it will give them more self-respect, more confidence in that faith which they profess.

Let us face the obvious. You do not get faith in language much beyond the point where you have lost the language of faith. By allowing words whose primary meaning is anchored in Scripture to be de-natured by worldly abuse, we have gotten into a swamp from which there can be no exit without first retracing our steps. We live in a world of babble, what Richard Rorty once called “incommensurable discourse,” a linguistic anarchy which has, contra Rorty, proven insufficiently therapeutic to ward off social calamity. To restore sanity we will need to recognize, as Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it, that in the end there can be no intelligibility without transcendence. A corollary of this axiom is that there can be no sustained morality without ontology, just as there can be no Christian understanding without a diligent and faithful preaching of the Word of God, straight up, no fizz and no ice.

Readers of this magazine are intelligent men and women. You can all afford a good dictionary. What you cannot afford is to let ideological redefinition by antagonists to the Word of the Lord set the default understanding of those for whom you have spiritual responsibility. You are all familiar with the closing words of the Revelation to John. This is not an unprecedented warning in Holy Scripture. Here is another:

Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not to his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar. (Prov. 30:5-6; KJV)

And subtract not either. For the love of Christ and his Kingdom, please be at pains to define carefully and patiently explain every word of God to your people—in their original register, not merely in the terms of our materialist culture. 

Our Father, may your name be kept as holy by us, and may your kingdom come and flourish in us. Please give us this day bread not only for our bodies, but the bread of life which is your Word and yourself. Forgive us, please our sins –which are many, sins of omission as well as commission—even as we make a sincere effort to forgive everyone who has sinned against us. And deliver us from the evil of presuming to think we have a better idea than that which you have given to us in your Word and in Christ Jesus. Protect us from such evil when it is imposed upon us by others. For the Kingdom is yours, not ours, and the power and the glory of it are yours, now and forever. Amen.

Forward in Christ

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