Pastors and the Prohibitive Practice of Word Wrangling
- Friday, November 20, 2009
I said, "He that winneth souls is wise."
He said, "What are you saying? I don't understand."
I said, "You would if you knew your Bible. I was quoting Proverbs 11:30."
He said, "Does it say that?"
"It does in mine." I showed him.
It said the same thing in his.
"That's not what it means," he insisted.
I said, "Have you talked to Solomon lately? How do you know what he meant by it?"
He sat there for a moment and said, "I can see there's no point in discussing Scripture with you. You're so close-minded."
Eventually, he and his wife divorced. Someone was close-minded all right, but I don't think it was the preacher.
I have two contributions to make to this discussion today, principles we could wish every pastor and Bible scholar would bear in mind in the relentless pursuit of Truth. Or better put, our relentless pursuit to understand the Truth which God has revealed to us in His word.
1) "Words do not have meanings; they have usages."
Dr. Ray Frank Robbins, now in Heaven, taught New Testament and Greek at several of our SBC institutions over a long career. He possessed two doctorates, including one from Oxford in England. He taught at Samford University when it was Howard College, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when I was a student, and later at Mississippi College. He was as good as they come, as sharp as any knife in the drawer, and yet a sweet and gentle brother in Christ.
The quote above is from Dr. Robbins. Remember it; it'll come in handy.
Pastors who have taken a few semesters of Greek (or less!), or who have taken none at all but have in their possession a book or two claiming to understand all there is to know along those lines often go to great lengths to tell their hearers "what the Greek means here."
Be careful here, friend.
Words do not have meanings; they have usages.
Anyone who has lived in America as long as forty years has seen the meanings of quite a number of words change drastically. Case in point...
- "My, you're looking gay today." Hmmm. Are you saying your friend has a pleasant appearance this morning or that he is sporting a lavender outfit and carrying his pinkie in the air?
- "I'm pro-choice." That's good, if you are staring at the menu of your favorite restaurant. You have the freedom to choose anything you can afford. However, if by that innocuous expression you mean you retain the right to carry a baby to term and give birth to it or to put it to death without any consequences whatsoever, that is another thing altogether.
- "I'm a liberal and proud of it." President Harry Truman would say that and have no qualms about it. In those days--the 1940s--'liberal' was an honorable word and if anyone went ballistic over it, I don't recall it. These days, only the left-fringe seems to brag about being liberal. "Moderate" and "conservative" in our denomination have also come to imply (to some at least) "liberal" and "fundamentalist."
It's important, I'm confident, to get at the root of a word and see what it "means" in the original Greek or Latin or whatever. But when we get that, we don't necessarily have a whole lot. Next, we will want to know how the word was used and what it meant to the speaker or writer.
2) Always back off and look at the bigger picture.
It's possible to find single words in the Bible that suggest new applications of Scripture and exotic avenues of doctrine. Many a heretic has built a career in just that way, by "going to seed" on one word or phrase in some biblical text while forgetting everything else the Bible has to say on that subject.
This is why Scripture itself cautions us that "no Scripture is of private interpretation" (II Peter 1:20).
Now, not to drive anyone mad here, but we have to ask ourselves what that means. What was the writer saying about the interpretation of Scripture? Was he saying that no one should get off by himself and find his own way of understanding the Word of God, but to stay within the context of the larger congregation of believers in order to have their counsel and balance? That seems to be a correct thing to do. That is, unlike you lived in the early 16th century when the larger church was corrupt and more worldly than the world.
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