By Jonathan Mitchican
Recently, I had a parishioner in my office, looking over the books on my shelf, when his eyes fell upon my 10-volume set of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament from Eerdmans. In response to his unspoken inquiry, I explained that these books took every Greek word in the New Testament and gave extensive information on them, including their derivation, shades of meaning, various usages in the ancient world, and even the varied ways they are used in the New Testament. His reaction to what I thought of as a rather innocuous piece of information surprised me.
“Doesn’t that make you question your faith?” he asked.
“Why would it do that?” I said.
“Well, how can you trust that God is speaking to you through the Bible if the words in it have all these different meanings?”
What he was putting his finger on, perhaps without realizing it, is a problem that has plagued some forms of Western Christianity for centuries, a problem that finds its apex in both fundamentalism and Spongite liberalism. We have developed a binary way of looking at words, which has led to a binary way of receiving the Word of God. Either the Scriptures mean one fixed thing, or they mean nothing at all.
Words might operate this way in a two-dimensional world where everything is flat and lifeless. It is not how words work in the world we actually live in. Words are symbols — carefully arranged vocal utterances or marks on a page, which are meant to point beyond themselves. They are raw materials. We stack words on top of other words to connect thoughts and build ideas. Right now, as you read this, your brain is interpreting the symbols, drawing together the various letters into words, stringing them into sentences, then allowing your mind to rise above the symbols to the ideas they represent.
That this can happen at all is remarkable. As far as we know, no other creature does this, at least not with the degree of sophistication involved in human language. The probability of miscommunication is very high. If I say the word table, what pops into your mind will be different from what pops into someone else’s mind. You might picture a large, luxurious table upon which some royalty or landed gentry might eat a great feast. Someone else might picture a fold-up card table. Still another person might imagine a table made of glass or stone. Someone might even come up with a different kind of table altogether, such as the periodic table of elements.
If all that diversity of understanding is possible when we try to communicate a relatively concrete concept like table, imagine how easily miscommunication creeps in when we try to render more abstract concepts into language: love, peace, honor, or justice. The problem compounds when we move to the ineffable qualities of God and the great doctrines of the Christian faith such as the Holy Trinity or the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that Christians have so often divided over such things?
Yet far from being a challenge to my faith, I find that the complexity and subtlety of language is one of the great mysteries that deepens my sense of wonder at the glory of God. As I have noted, there are many difficulties inherent in the act of communicating with words, and yet we communicate! Somehow, despite all odds, we human beings manage to share our lives with one another through the means of these crude symbols. We are able to express and know love, peace, and joy, as well as to care about honor and justice. We are even able to play with our language, through poetry and song and the use of metaphors, entering through these unexpected avenues into deeper awareness of the truth of creation. Surely, the God who was “in the beginning” the Word is in that kind of wordplay (John 1:1). Language is very much at the heart of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.
Of course, even as I acknowledge this, I feel a great pang of sadness about it. I have written before a number of times about my life as a parent of two young boys with autism, neither of whom has much ability to use language. I have always loved words. I was an English literature major. Heck, I was a rapper. My wife and I named our children after a poet (Langston) and a prophet (Micah). There is a devastating irony to that. I cannot have a conversation with my children. They find words frustrating, a hindrance to communication rather than a miracle.
But aren’t they also made in God’s image and likeness?
An elderly priest said to me recently, “We gain our humanity not through any of our individual gifts or challenges but by being members of the human family.” The intimacy we share with God comes through in the gift of language that we have received as a people, even for those among us who have not been able to know that gift as fully as others. Our dignity is not ultimately founded upon our abilities — which are limited and finite for all people, myself included — but upon the Word of God that lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And that Word is dynamic and living, never static or flat.
All of which brings us back to the pages of Scripture and the many words contained there, some of which can be interpreted in a variety of fruitful ways. To acknowledge that truth does not require us to become wishy-washy about the core doctrines of the faith, or to make the text so flexible that it becomes devoid of any intrinsic meaning other than what we pour into it. But it requires us to understand the Scriptures less like an instruction manual (B.I.B.L.E. — “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”) and more like a play, something that communicates the plain intention of the author but which can only be understood in its acting out.
Towards the end of his Gospel, St. John says, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). This statement comes immediately after Jesus has breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples and sent them forth to forgive and retain sins, thereby carrying his risen life out into the world. The point of the record of Jesus’ deeds in Scripture is not for its own sake. The point is that in and through reading those words, we will come to know God and to live in his presence.
It is awe-inspiring to me that the God of everything — the God who created stars and planets — is willing to humble himself and speak to us through the medium of mere words. Yet the truth is that the words used by God are no longer merely symbols. God has raised them to be so much more. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, called words “precious cups of meaning.” Every word contains within it a multitude. Every sentence is a miracle. The variation of meanings that can be found in any one text of Scripture does not disprove God’s authorship. On the contrary, it is an expression of God’s creative genius, that each of us may encounter each passage anew depending on the circumstances of the moment, and that thereby God may use this one finite volume of words to speak to us over and over again.