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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Language as a problem for Biblical inerrancy

The Bible has been referred to by many as the "Word(s) of God." And the reasoning goes something like this:  If it is the "Word(s) of God," then it must be perfect - without any flaws.

Many of my readers, however, will at once see a major obstacle to the acceptance of this logic:  It may be the "Word(s) of God," but it is wholly composed of human languages. Now, admittedly, we have found language to be a very effective means of communicating with each other - of conveying ideas, concepts, feelings and their meanings to each other. But could anyone make a reasonably sound argument that human language is perfectly efficient in doing the things which it was designed to do?

Let us consider for just a moment the basic building blocks of language. If we Google the term language, we find that it is defined as "the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way." Now we could talk at some length about the formation of alphabets, and the dramatic differences which are apparent among the symbols used for the various languages of the world; but I think that it would be more productive to focus on the words which those symbols are used to form.

Once again, if we Google the term word, we find that it is defined as "a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing..." And who, we ask, is attaching a meaning to that element? Obvious answer:  we (humans) do. And think for just a moment about just how imprecise that exercise can be!

Within the confines of a single language, we have multiple dictionaries available to us (usually presenting a multiplicity of possible meanings for the object of our query). In fact, for the word word, Merriam-Webster enumerates eleven possible meanings (and that's not taking into account how some of those are further parsed into variations of similar meanings)! In other words, we can (and do) bring some very different meanings to the same word.

As an example:  For those of us who speak/write English, the word chair would conjure up a similar meaning for all of us; but it would not be exactly the same for you and me. An image of a recliner might come to your mind, while I am busy thinking about a wooden folding chair.

We also have available to us other words which can say the same thing (or something very similar. We call these synonyms. For example, when we Google the term word, the following synonyms are listed:  term, name, expression, designation, locution, vocable... And we haven't even addressed the subject of whether we are using the word in question as a noun, verb or some other part of speech!

Can we begin to see just how complex language is? Can we appreciate the different perspectives and shades of meaning which each and every one of us can (and do) bring to this exercise?

What about when we begin to string words together? As an example, let us consider the English "Merry Christmas" and the Spanish "Feliz Navidad." We could say that both are meant to convey, "I hope that you have an enjoyable celebration of the anniversary of Christ's birth." However, a literal break down of the English words would reveal "Merry Christ Mass;" and a literal translation of the Spanish words would reveal "Happy Nativity!"

In the study of the Bible, we must always remember that the original texts were composed using mostly Hebrew, Aramaic, Babylonian and Greek words. In fact, regular students of Scripture will often employ a concordance to help them get the full range of a particular word's meaning. Likewise, most students of the Bible understand that the particular arrangement of words in the original language can have a profound impact on the meaning of some passage.

Hence, we can see that it is ridiculous to suggest that language can be perfectly efficient in conveying what I'm thinking to you. In the end, we all have our individual filters which inform our interpretations of the messages which we receive. Thus, it is the thesis of this post that the very nature of language makes Biblical inerrancy impossible! 

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