Saturday, November 29, 2014

Truthfulness in Language

Within theology (and English!) certain words and phrases have a particular meaning. We can't change the meaning of those words to suit our 'edgy' writing one moment and then re-define them when questioned to avoid appearing outside the bounds of orthodoxy or our confession. Certain groups of theologians are fond of doing just that. Through obfuscation and equivocation they hang on to their confession or claims to orthodoxy by the thinnest of threads. But confusion and double-speak are not the mark of clear biblical teaching.   

Obfuscate: to make more difficult to understand.
Equivocate: use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone.

Apparently this is not a new phenomenon. J. Gresham Machen dealt with it in his book Christianity and Liberalism:

It may well be doubted, however, whether the assertion, "I believe that Jesus is God," or the like... is strictly truthful. The ...preacher attaches indeed a real meaning to the words, and that meaning is very dear to his heart. He really does believe that "Jesus is God." But the trouble is that he attaches to the words a different meaning from that which is attached to them by the simple-minded person to whom he is speaking. He offends, therefore, against the fundamental principle of truthfulness in language. According to that fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts. Thus the truthfulness of the assertion, "I believe that Jesus is God," depends upon the audience that is addressed. If the audience is composed of theologically trained persons, who will attach the same meaning to the word "God" as that which the speaker attaches to it, then the language is truthful. But if the audience is composed of old-fashioned Christians, who have never attached anything but the old meaning to the word "God" (the meaning which appears in the first verse of Genesis), then the language is untruthful. And in the latter case, not all the pious motives in the world will make the utterance right. Christian ethics do not abrogate common honesty; no possible desire of edifying the Church and of avoiding offence can excuse a lie.

Machen later has an extended treatment of how one should behave with respect to the confession when they no longer agree with it's plain meaning in his chapter on the Church - especially pp. 163 - 164. In his case he was referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

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