Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You Have No Idea What You Are Doing

… but you do it pretty well … most of the time.

That’s my conclusion after reading (again) Grant Osborne’s chapter on semantics in The Hermeneutical Spiral.

You see, when you read the above sentence, you didn’t think about the historical uses of the word “conclusion” or the root meaning of the word “read.” You didn’t think of the multiple dictionary definitions (the semantic domain) of “chapter.”

In fact, the only thing you may have tripped over for a minute is the word “semantics.” And you probably didn’t care enough to look it up.


Because language is actually pretty easy.

Simply put, we know what words mean by the way that we use them every day. And when we don’t know what a word means, we explain it (i.e., define it) by using other words that we do know. (Remember, that’s what a dictionary does … explain a word you do not know by using words you [hopefully]do know.)

People have written tomes on how we use language. Some people use words like locution, illocution, perlocution. There is talk of generative grammar and transformational grammar, of surface structure and deep structure. There’s semantics and pragmatics. And of course, hermeneutics.

And you probably don’t know what any of that means.

And yet you communicate just fine.

Or at least you use words just fine. Your communication problems actually stem from things that usually have nothing to do with understanding what the words mean.

Here’s the rub: When we come to the Bible, we tend to forget everything we actually know and do with language. We treat the Bible like it’s some sort of special language.

So we know that a word only has one meaning in a sentence (when you tell your teen daughter that she can’t go to the mall, she knows that you aren’t telling her she can’t go do the dishes in the sink).

Yet we read a verse and say that a word has two or three or four meanings and spend twenty to thirty minutes building a case for all these meanings as part of the meaning of Scripture.

We know that that “close the door when you come in” means to swing the big slab of wood in the direction that covers up the hole in the wall you that you just walked through. But you don’t think of that long definition, and certainly don’t spend time explaining that long definition. And your mind doesn’t go back to the root meaning of “close” or “door.” You simply do it.

As students of the Bible, we need to recognize that the Bible is not a special use of human language.

It is normal human language just like we use today. Yes, it is between 2000 and 3500 years old, and therefore, we need to do some work on it in translation and definition of words. But we need to recognize that Bible words mean only what they meant back then. And most translations do a good job of putting that into the language that we use today.

For the most part, the language of the Bible is a lot easier than many preachers make it sound like.

And by the way, pastor, at the risk of sounding elitist, if you are quoting “Strong’s” to establish the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word, then you are unqualified to speak about Greek or Hebrew. And most of the time, it’s unnecessary anyway. Get two or three or four good translations, and a couple of good commentaries, and go with it.

When it comes to the words of God, Let’s not confuse it. Let’s just do what we always do.

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