This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 1 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Words have meaning, but culture can impact word meaning and connotation. History shows that civilizations have consistently morphed meanings of words in order to suit societal needs, but such redefinitions can have a stigmatizing effect on faith communities and civilization. The early church responded to such usurping of meaning with apologetic and polemic semantic responses. The present trends likewise have semantic origins and require intentional and timely apologetic and polemic responses. In an increasingly post-truth and relativistic society, words can mean anything we feel like they should mean, with seemingly no consequence and virtual acceptance of whatever meaning we choose.
Today, caution is needed concerning how hijacking a word’s definition can marginalize others, especially faith communities, recognizing that we, as Christians, play a significant role in how words are used and perceived. With that understanding, Christians should evaluate post-truth terms and compare them with what those words meant in a Judeo-Christian-influenced semantic universe; use discernment; accurately discuss distortions, faithfully working toward an authentic biblical mission; use opportunities to advance biblical influence; and pray that God gives us wisdom about the true meaning and value of the Logos. Semantic apologetics and polemics may be one of the vital avenues of grace, reform, renewal, and progress in our age of post-truth relativism and outrage.
SEMANTIC APOLOGETICS AND POLEMICS
The biblical task of preserving correct theological definitions within our faith communities is semantic (verbal) polemics. Gently and respectfully making a reasoned or persuasive defense (apologia) of the proper characterization and definitions of beliefs and practice with those outside of our faith communities is semantic apologetics (1 Pet. 3:15).
“I think there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
—REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ
(60 MINUTES, JANUARY 6, 2019)
“American society today is divided by party and by ideology in a way it has perhaps not been since the Civil War.”
(IMPRIMIS, FEBRUARY 2020)
“We are in the midst of a seismic semantic revolution in which words are being systematically hijacked by a global coup d’état determined to overthrow the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western culture and civilization.”
Those who gently and graciously affirm the Scriptural norm for heterosexual marriage and ordination are trapped in an unenlightened and “non-inclusive” homophobia, according to post-biblical or post-truth critics today, which include noted faith community leaders and many 2020 American presidential candidates. Furthermore, traditionalists are, by definition, or rather redefinition, characterized by the following interdependent semantic universe: intolerant, unloving, hateful, opposed to compassionate social justice, anti-diversity, legalistic, uneducated/ignorant, xenophobic, theocratic, unpatriotic, destructive of “neutral” public and higher education, and ultimately, an imminent and existential threat to the noble quest for a progressive future. Such pejorative designations are now applied not only to present-day biblical traditionalists but also to the very architects of the original American experiment.
Carl F. H. Henry predicted more than a generation ago that we were moving into a burgeoning “crisis of word,” “truth,” and “authority,” as we drifted toward the “twilight of a [once Logocentric1 and] great civilization.”2 This semantic crisis, which has flowered into fragmentation, outrage, and semantic terrorism, is now acute and exigent. Ravi Zacharias properly frames our semantic, cultural, and apologetic moment:
A soft side to the meaning of post-truth suggests that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief. But the hard meaning of the word is that in this culture we willfully and justifiably convey something false because it accomplishes a personal or end goal: the end justifies the means, which do not need to justify themselves….Once we remove God and decide instead to play God, truth gives way to fiction….With the death of truth, the unique capability of Homo sapiens [created in the image of God] for abstract reasoning and language is now taken to the morgue and all language is meaningless. Indeed, we have so extinguished the light of truth in our halls of learning that it is possible for a Harvard student to say, “I can believe anything I want, so long as I don’t claim it to be true.”3 (Emphasis added.)
Our public conversation is increasingly adrift, coarse, and unhinged, even amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. This global and semantic coup, or verbal seduction, is pervasive in recent years as evidenced by these illustrative case studies:
- Madonna’s self-described “Jesus”-based, pro-faith advocacy for abortion4
- Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s redefinitions of “pro-family,” “pro-faith,” “compassion,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and their March 12, 2020, webpage photo highlighting interfaith religious leaders and “justice” advocates holding hands, bowing in prayer, and asking for God’s blessings on abortion clinics5
- San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ attempt to redefine “convict,” “felon,” “prisoner,” and “juvenile delinquent” as virulent “racism” that targets “justice involved” persons6
- A historic “Christian” seminary’s redefinition of God, prayer, repentance, and chapel inclusive of neo-pantheistic worship, prayer, and repentance directed toward plants7
- Proliferating and self-devouring conflicts between political progressives who redefine terms and values based on subjective choice or personal preference concerning racism, sexism, non-binary gender, true feminism, and the justice of transgender athletic competition8
- Cultural leaders and certain demographics becoming progressively supportive of the significant redefinition and curtailment of “freedom of speech”9
As is the case with objective morality and truth, words are now pervasively and opportunistically defined, re-defined, and used in a relativistic, and sometimes weaponized, fashion. Meaning and communication are “in the eyes of the beholder.” Ironically, some people today use words to affirm with Nietzsche the fact that “there are no facts,” the truth that “there is no truth,” and that we have “only interpretations” and “a mobile army of metaphors.”10 Is it any wonder that we are living in an age where truth has been replaced with militant, tribalistic advocacy and the ethically vacuous will to have power over others? Words are now organically, systemically, and symbiotically redefined.
BIBLICAL, EARLY CHURCH, AND AUGUSTINIAN ERA
SEMANTIC APOLOGETICS AND POLEMICS
Semantic equivocation, verbal seduction, and manipulative word games are not new and have emerged within faith communities throughout history. The apostle Paul, in just a few brief statements (2 Cor. 11), challenged seven seductive redefinitions of key biblical terms: another “Jesus,” a different “spirit” and “gospel,” false “apostles,” deceitful “workers,” a seductive “angel,” and unrighteous “servants.”11
The apostle Paul followed in the semantic stead and steps of Christ, who reclaimed and forcefully restated the true and authoritative definition of terms, such as “Messiah,”12 “Abraham’s [and God’s] children,” “sinner,” “righteous,” “marriage,” “divorce,” and “adultery.” The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had distorted and weakened the biblical definitions of sin and righteousness (Luke 18:9–14) and marriage and divorce (Mark 10:2–12). Jesus and Paul epitomized the method of semantic apologetics and polemics by exposing counterfeit definitions (e.g., “Abraham’s children,” John 8:39–47) and reestablishing the original and inspired biblical intent and meaning of terms (e.g., “murder” and “adultery,” Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28; “circumcision,” Rom. 2:25–29; Col. 2:8–14).
The semantic challenges to biblical faith have continued unabated throughout church history as reflected in the illustrative — not exhaustive — tables below, beginning with the New Testament era.
SEMANTIC APOLOGETICS AND POLEMICS
IN THE ERA OF CLASSICAL LIBERAL THEOLOGY
As noted, semantic equivocation and distortion continued throughout church history. Deists largely outside of biblical orthodoxy (such as Thomas Jefferson) redefined Jesus. Beginning in roughly the late eighteenth century and into the twentieth century, progressive or classically liberal theologians attempted to save Christianity from modernism by redefining core Judeo-Christian concepts and terms inside and outside of the church, in order to make the faith acceptable to the modernistic “cultured despisers” of historic beliefs.19 Virtually every key theological term was systemically redefined in one fashion or another by classical liberal theologians. The late Walter Martin referred to such church-destroying semantic theological equivocation as “theobabble.”20
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY POST-TRUTH SEMANTIC
APOLOGETICS AND POLEMICS
For centuries, the Western consensus attempted to norm language and communication to Truth/Logos (God’s exclusive and complete knowledge of reality, or archetypal knowledge) and Truth (truth revealed through the creation, Christ, Scripture, reason, conscience, and grasped “through a glass darkly” [1 Cor. 13:12] with “great confidence” [2 Tim. 1:12]). Today, the light of Logocentric influence on the soul of culture is slipping below the horizon. The canonizing of seemingly infinite personal stories, personal and tribal realities, and individual and tribalistic functional gods suggests that we have now moved from the age of theobabble to the age of (polytheistic) polybabble.
Os Guinness’s statement that we are now in an ABC (anything but Christian) moment applies to the totality of our contemporary lexicon.22 Traditional Judeo-Christian faith communities are rightly concerned about cultural losses, such as the Obergefell marriage redefinition23 or the redefinition of virtue in media and entertainment. However, the seductive banishment of biblical and Judeo-Christian influence from the entire American lexicon has far more profound and long-term implications and consequences for the health of faith communities, culture, law, and civilization than any single cultural loss or trend.
The rampant verbal seduction today is in many respects the diseased spiritual root that is producing the cancerous and decaying cultural fruit. This should be of no surprise to Judeo-Christian faith communities centered in the personal Word of God and the inspired words that create, prescribe, characterize, and determine their identity and mission. The people of the Word have
- meticulously, miraculously, and faithfully transmitted holy words for centuries,
- named their children, hospitals, schools, organizations, and cities accordingly,
- revered not only the words but “the smallest letter or stroke” (Matt. 5:18) in Scripture,
- viewed all Scripture as God-breathed and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), and
- turned to Scriptural guidance for personal comfort and global impact
WORDS AS SPIRITUAL, GENERATIVE, AND
NORMING OF FAITH AND CULTURE
Words and ideas are culturally and spiritually powerful for good (“Let there be light.”) or evil (“Has God said?”). They are profoundly generative, formative, visionary, and defining of past, present, and future ecclesial and civilizational reality. Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:33). Humanity “lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Indeed, “The words of the LORD are pure words, As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times” (Ps. 12:6).
Some view the present crisis of polarization and outrage in very intellectualist or modernist terms — and if we can just revive the right political philosophy, model of government, or legal definition of freedom of speech or religion, then culture and community will heal and unify. Yet, as critically important as such concepts, legal decisions, and discussions truly are,24 the spiritually semantic context of an era is even more fundamental and prior to all such cultural diagnoses, prescriptions, and worldview conflicts. Logos-created reality begins with “Then God said” (Gen. 1:3).
The architects of the “more perfect union” did not always agree among themselves,25 yet the emerging Logocentric and Enlightenment hybrid semantic consensus included traditional Judeo-Christian, Lockean (rational supernaturalism), plus moderate and more extreme Enlightenment elements ameliorated by Judeo-Christian conceptions, culture, and the First Great Awakening revival.26 This collaborative and semantic synthesis of unity from diversity served as a plumb line for civilization-building, and advanced belief in the Creator, divinely bestowed rights, and shared norms for assessing truth and morality claims. This semantic tapestry could serve as a rekindled and unifying alternative model for our age of accelerating fragmentation. Today we can’t communicate because we inhabit alternative semantic and spiritual universes.
Guinness’s brilliant ABC observation is perhaps already dated. We are now moving from an ABC moment in history to an AJC (anti-Judeo-Christian) moment. This macro-morphing is coterminously emerging from and influencing virtually every theological, political, and cultural term and concept utilized within and outside of faith communities.27 This inverted semantic context has been materializing for multiple generations and illuminates why Mother Teresa and Billy Graham were referred to, less than two decades ago, by such terms as “Hell’s Angel,” “fanatic, fundamentalist, and fraud,” “power-worshipping bigot,” and “disgustingly evil.”28 The canary in the mineshaft for this global and semantic coup d’état is now singing a troubled and chaotic jeremiad. For another example, “social justice” has often become a question-begging Trojan horse for AJC tribalistic “just us.” The fallacy of verbal equivocation is used daily, as verbal gyrations are constantly redefining reality, including the American experiment, freedom, compassion, diversity, the church, and Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices. If Western history were a Star Wars drama, the fallacy of equivocation would clearly be one of the main and most effective weapons of the dark side. Or in terms reminiscent of C. S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters (1942), seductive semantic equivocation is now Screwtape’s preferred sophism.
We are communicating constantly via words; consequently, every day the currency of words devalues. Thoughtful individuals of various religious and political perspectives now ask if God and truth are dead, including Time magazine.29 The cultural death of God and truth are arguably connected to the emerging death of words, free speech, freedom, and civilizational experiments in genuinely more perfect unions.
The biblical “angel of light” principle (2 Cor. 11:4) may have relevance if properly applied to the current context. The applicable part of this analogous principle is not that the seducers or the seduced are necessarily given over to evil. Consistent with leitmotifs in Scripture and The Screwtape Letters, terms and causes that appear good, pure (light), or even angelic can be employed in a fashion that is terribly destructive to individuals, faith communities, and nations. In principle, millions could advocate for a perceived noble cause when, in fact, they have been deceived.
We cannot escape the semantic quagmire and political distortions even within our own Judeo-Christian faith communities. The present post-truth and post-word crisis suggests that the greatest semantic apologetic and polemic challenges in the history of the Judeo-Christian movement may well have arrived.
The proper response to this semantic crisis is manifold,30 including these illustrative practical applications:
- Every believer should construct a mini-lexicon of twenty of the most corrosive post-truth terms today for their respective context and ministry, then compare and contrast these terms with the Judeo-Christian-influenced semantic universe (e.g., contemporary “inclusion” versus Judeo-Christian “inclusion/love [agape]”).
- Faith communities should engage in intentional semantic discernment relative to civic participation (e.g., voting, candidate and policy assessments, community involvement), hiring processes for religious leaders, and apologetic and evangelistic training and outreach.
- Religious leaders, educators, and parents should follow the New Testament and historic apologetic examples (see tables above) via sermons and instruction that regularly counter and redeem semantic distortions in order to protect, disciple, and inspire the faithful toward authentic biblical mission.
- Believers should lovingly, tactfully, and creatively use social and general media opportunities for advancing biblical influence on our tempestuous and virulent contemporary semantic universe.
- Believers should pray for a Logocentric and kingdomcentric resurrection of meaning, values, and words.
A key assumption of Judeo-Christian-influenced faith, certainly evident during the tumultuous days of the birth of the American experiment, is the many surprises of grace and providence in history. Semantic apologetics and polemics may well be one of the important avenues of such grace, reform, renewal, and progress in our age of post-truth relativism and outrage.
D. K. Matthews, PhD, has served as provost, vice president, professor of theology and philosophy, and radio host. His published work includes A Theology of Cross and Kingdom (Pickwick, 2019) and Seduced? (Liberty Hill, 2020).
- In orbit around and influenced by the personalized Wisdom of God (Proverbs, especially chapters 2–11), the personal (Christ), and written Word (Scripture) of God.
- Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, God Who Speaks and Shows, Preliminary Considerations (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976), 17; Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward New Paganism (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 15.
- Ravi Zacharias, “Think Again: Timeless Words,” accessed March 11, 2020, https://www.rzim.org/read/just-thinking magazine/think-again-timeless-words.
- Douglas Ernst, “Madonna Wants Meeting with Pope Francis to Convince Him of Prochoice Jesus,” The Washington Times, June 19, 2019, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/jun/19/madonna-wants-meeting-with-pope-francis-toconvinc/.
- Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, “Clinic Blessings,” accessed March 12, 2020, https://rcrc.org/clinic-blessings/.
- Jackie Salo, “Why You’ll No Longer Find ‘Convicted Felons’ in San Francisco,” New York Post, August 22, 2019, accessed September 30, 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/08/22/ whyyoull-no-longer-find-convicted-felons-in-san-francisco/.
- Union News, “Worship at Union,” September 18, 2019, accessed September 30, 2019, https://utsnyc.edu/worship-at-union/.
- K. Matthews, Seduced? Shameless Spin, Weaponized Words, Polarization, Tribalism, and the Impending Disintegration of Faith and Culture (Maitland, FL: Liberty Hill, 2020),58–59.
- Salvador Rizzo, “Do 40 Percent of Young Americans Think Free Speech is Dangerous?” The Washington Post, April 12, 2018, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/04/12/do-40-percent-of-young-americans-think-freespeech-is-dangerous/.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Book Three: Principles of a New Evaluation of the Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 291; and Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsity in Their Extramoral Sense (1873),” in Philosophical Writings, ed. Reinhold Grimm and Caroline Molina y Vedia (New York: Continuum, 1997), 92.
- All Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
- The ancient Jews expected a conquering Messiah, but Jesus showed that Messiah would suffer before entering His glory (Luke 24:26–27; see Mark 8:29–31; 10:45; 14:61–62; John12:32–34; 1 Cor 1:23).
- Legalistic salvation.
- Jesus only seemed or appeared to (dokein) have a physical body.
- Merely human Jesus. Denied the virgin birth and deity of Christ.
- Andrew McGowan, “Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism against Christians in the Second Century,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 413–42; and Justin Martyr, “The Defense and Explanation of Christian Faith and Practice” (155).
- Gnosticism (the heresy claiming secret gnosis or knowledge of salvation) also denied or deemphasized the physical incarnation of Christ and the true deity of Christ.
- Antinomianism (anti-nomos or anti-law) rejected the biblical teaching that the moral Law, even if fulfilled via the new heart of the New Covenant, still had direct application to Christians.
- g., Friedrich Schleiermacher, Reden (1799).
- John Ankerberg, “Homosexuality and Sexual Ethics—Program 1,” The John Ankerberg Show, 1989, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.jashow.org/articles/general/homosexuality-and-sexual-ethics-program-1/.
- These theologically liberal redefinitions are common knowledge, but for historical and primary sources, see Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 205–82.
- Decision Staff, “Hostility on the College Campus: A Conversation with Os Guinness,” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, May 27, 2016, accessed March 4, 2020, https://decisionmagazine.com/hostility-on-the-college-campus-a-conversation-with-os-guiness/.
- Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. __ (2015).
- See the helpful example but largely conceptual analysis in the following address: William P. Barr, “Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the 2020 National Religious Broadcasters Convention,” The United States Department of Justice, February 26, 2020, accessed February 28, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-generalwilliam-p-barr-delivers-remarks-2020-national-religious-broadcasters.
- See Steven Waldman, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom (New York: HarperOne, 2019), 25–47 (and entire work).
- Matthews, Seduced?, 174–75, and Chapter 5.
- See Matthews, Seduced?
- Christopher Hitchens, “Mommie Dearest: The Pope Beatifies Mother Teresa, a Fanatic, Fundamentalist, and a Fraud,” October 20, 2003, accessed March 10, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2003/10/the-fanatic-fraudulent-mother-teresa.html; William Crawley, “A Disgustingly Evil Man,” BBC, September 23, 2007, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2007/09/a_disgustingly_evil_man.html; and Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, “Why Christopher Hitchens Is Wrong About Billy Graham,” Time, September 18, 2007, accessed March 10, 2020, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1662757,00.html.
- Time magazine covers, 1966 and 2017. See Matthews, Seduced?, 118–21.
- See Matthews, Seduced?, especially chapter 10.