Ten years ago a Stanford neuroscientist claimed that the languages we speak shape the way we think. Lera Boroditsky said that the consensus in the field of neuroscience is that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.” At the time this was a new and empirical twist on an old and controversial idea.
In the late 1920 the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which popularized the idea that language is used not only to express our thoughts but help to shape them too. In linguistics, this explanation for the way that language relates to thought is known as a mould theory, since it “represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast.”
Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, provides a striking example of this effect in his book Toward a More Natural Science:
Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as “begetting” or “siring.” The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning “to come into being.” . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term “pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, “re-production.”
The language of the factory is as incompatible with human dignity as is the interchangeability of machine and life. Yet our acceptance of such language as “reproductive technology” paved the way for our acceptance, for better or worse, of the process the language represents.
Perhaps it’s because we intuitively understand the way language shapes our culture that we fight so much over language. Another example from the realm of human dignity is how for decades both sides of the abortion debate have attempted to ensure that their preferred terms—pro-life, abortion rights, and so on—seep into the media’s vernacular. While the persuasive effect of such terms may be overstated, these words retain their political usefulness as the struggle over their usages attest.
Language in Conflict
When we enter in the public square, Christians are supposed to think and act in a manner that distinguishes us from the world. Yet too often when we engage in arguments about terminology we do so on the same grounds as unbelievers. How should we fight about language as Christians? And more specifically, if we are trying to recast the way the world thinks (or at least not be shaped by the world’s misguided thinking) how do we determine when we should keep certain words and when should we abandon them?
Unfortunately, there is no just war theory of language we can apply to the war over words. I don’t have a solution or a list of rules by which we can draw terminological boundaries. What I want to offer instead is a way of thinking about how we can approach the process by making distinctions between various categories. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with my approach or with the examples I give, I hope it can be a useful starting point for a long overdue discussion about how we should fight about words.
As Scripture itself attests, God’s Word can be “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8). The apostle Peter says people stumble because they disobey the message. But in every age there are Christians who claim we stumble because the words God uses in his Word are themselves rocks of offense. Such people recommend we discard such terms as predestination, hell, or sin so that we don’t cause unnecessary offense.
Despite their best efforts to get us to lose those words, few Christians are foolish enough to agree to abandon biblical language. We trust God knows what he’s doing in choosing terms. We also have repeatedly seen how those who abandon the full range of God’s terms almost always end up abandoning the full range of his truth. Of all the categories we could make, these are the words most worth fighting for.
A theological neologism is the coining or use of new word to describe biblical concepts. Perhaps the most important example is the term “Trinity” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tertullian was the first theologian to use the word trinitas, a compound formed from the Latin words for “three” and “one.” Since then the term has gained near-universal usage within the church.
Neologisms created by theologians aren’t as sacrosanct as terms found in the Bible. They are similar to biblical terms, though, in that their usage is rarely challenged. And for good reason: The widespread acceptance of such words throughout church history should caution us against abandoning them unless we’re sure they can be replaced by more helpful terms.
Eight years ago a task force of the Southern Baptist Convention was appointed to study a possible name change. After considering 535 possible names, the committee recommend the convention keep its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: Great Commission Baptists.
As Jimmy Draper, chairman of the task force, explained, the name change is an “issue that just won’t die.” The first attempt to change the name was in 1903; since then, it has been presented to the convention in one form or another 13 times. When the convention was formed in 1845, the Baptist founders intended for the name to identify with the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War. “This signifies that the name has not only been a source of difficulty for church planters serving in areas outside the American South but also that the name has been a source of some difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity with the Confederacy,” says Ken Fentress, senior pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland.
For the largest Protestant denomination in America to consider abandoning its name shows how religious labels can get weighted down with negative connotations (i.e., an idea or feeling that a word invokes). Over the past hundred years there has been a shift to adopting religious labels that are broadly generic and have fewer clear connotations. A prime example is how many churches identify as non-denominational (which some people consider a mere synonym for independent Baptist) or add “Bible” to their church name in place of a denominational affiliation (e.g., Hometown Bible Church).
Whether we should abandon or even avoid such terms is complicated by our affection for the labels. For example, I love the word “evangelical” and won’t give it up without a fight. I will continue to do what I can to wrestle it away from those who, out of ignorance or animus, attempt to transform it into a political label. But I also recognize that’s a fight I may lose. A hundred years ago I would have called myself a “fundamentalist” since I adhere to the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. The original meaning of that word, though, has been lost and is beyond recovery. Calling myself a “fundamentalist” now would lead to nothing but confusion.
We should be hesitant to give up cherished religious labels too easily. Yet if our goal is to communicate clearly, we can’t ignore a label’s acquired connotations.
Cultural and Political Terms
The most contentious fights in American Christianity today are over cultural terms, whether old (social justice, racism) or relatively new (cultural Marxism, woke). In the other categories I’ve mentioned, the disagreements tend to be about the word’s connotation; for cultural and political terms the denotation (i.e., the literal or primary meaning of a word) is frequently also in dispute.
Take, for example, the term “white supremacy.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” This is how most people understand the term, and it is often associated with explicit racism and white people who believe in racial separatism. But as Wikipedia points out, “In academic usage, particularly in usage which draws on critical race theory or intersectionality, the term ‘white supremacy’ can also refer to a political or socioeconomic system, in which white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level.”
Whichever meaning we intend, when we use a term like white supremacy while speaking to a general audience we immediately confuse a large portion of our hearers. And if we immediately explain our preferred meaning we are likely to be accused of using the word “in the wrong way,” that is, in a way that the hearer does not understand or agree with.
Unfortunately, provoking division is too often the intention for using those terms in the first place. While they can and have been used with a neutral and non-divisive intention, that type of usage is becoming increasingly rare. More often such coded language is used in a way similar to how the Hebrews used the term “shibboleth” (Jud. 12:5-6)—as a signal to our particular associational groups (e.g., political, ethnic, cultural) that we are in allegiance with them (or that they should be allied with us) in a way that sets up a part from the outgroup.
Getting Christians to set aside such weaponized language is almost as difficult as getting nations to give up nuclear weapons. We fear that unilateral disarmament will give our enemies in the culture and political wars a rhetorical advantage. We also worry that if we were to replace such words the new terms would soon become just as tainted.
This is no doubt true. And there may be times when giving up a particular term would simply make it more difficult to communicate clearly. We are not morally obligated to give up every tainted term, and there are times when we should drive terms out of the public square. But we should be hesitant to assume our intentions are noble. We should constantly search our hearts to uncover our true motives about how we are using language.
For instance, are we using a word because it succinctly explains a complex idea, or are we using it as a boo-word? Are we trying to change how others think using rhetorical and moral suasion, or are we trying to make concepts off-limits by restricting the use of certain words? Do we have an appropriate concern about using terms that have been adopted by extremists and radicals?
If we are to effectively love our neighbors we need to be more loving in the way we communicate.
Language After Pentecost
The whole world once had “one language and a common speech,” as Genesis tells us, but then God confused the language of mankind to prevent us from fulfilling our self-serving desires. On the Day of Pentecost, though, the world encountered an initial reversal of Babel.
“Instead of language being a barrier to man’s mission of self-glorification,” Trevin Wax says, “languages are now redeemed in order for the Triune God’s mission of glorifying himself to move forward!”
As Christians, we can continue the work begun at Pentecost by using language in a way that helps unite us. We should also—since we are going to be molded by words—ensure we are first shaped by the Word. And if we’re going to fight about terms, let’s ensure they are words that help us bring the most glory to God.