It’s Just Words, Man…Just Words

“You’re just arguing semantics,” was the reply I received. “That’s what he said to you?” an evangelist friend of mine asked. “Yeah, that’s what he said as if this somehow settled the argument,” I said. “That’s stupid, of course you’re arguing over semantics…that’s the whole point,” came my friends irritated response.[1]

What’s the Problem?

Semantics may not be a word that many are familiar with. But familiarity or not everyone uses semantical argumentation. In debates, dialogues, and various other forms of argument one of the things you will notice is that the debate stems from the varying ways in which individuals or groups understand certain key terms or concepts.

This is the game that is often played in cultural issues and or policies (i.e., politics). Barring consideration over the foundational issues inherent in any position held, language or the way we communicate is loaded with baggage.[2]  This baggage provides a filtering lens in the way we use terms or phrases, based on our interpretation of them via our worldview commitments. In short, the way we use certain words or phrases or concepts through various forms of speech (speaking, writing), and the way we hear them (audio, reading) will be governed by what we considered acceptable within a certain range of meaning.

Underlying Issue Elaborated Upon…

The conversation that I roped you in with above was the result of a real meeting I had with a board of elders in the Nazarene Church. This was during my first pastorate, and it was one of many steps as I journeyed on through the ordination process.[3] If I’m not mistaken this conversation would have taken place sometime in the spring of 2010 before the District Assembly’s meeting. The semantical argument that one of the elders referred to was over the word “vision.” The text pointed to was Prov 29.18 in the KJV:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

The problem was that they didn’t like my response on a questionnaire I had filled out a few weeks before the meeting. They interpreted my response as hostile, but it was anything but. In fact, one of the elders said that my demeanor in the meeting was not the impression he’d gotten from what I’d written. Meaning I seemed rather blunt, to which he took as, I suppose, some form of aggression on my part. However, they thought I was rather cordial in person.

The source of contention in this meeting was that I told them they had wrongly applied the passage in question. They were using it in a way to inquire what my “vision was” that I had received from the Lord for my work in Chesterhill, OH. What dream or aspirations or visionary net was I casting to lead me in future months as I worked in the ministry at that church? Even without a lexicon if one merely reads the verse you will see that parallel provided in this form of Hebrew poetry limits the use of the word “vision” in this context as instruction received from God’s law (Torah). More recent English translations pick this intention up provided by the writer of this particular proverb:

  • “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (ESV).
  • “When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he!” (NET)
  • “When there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but as for he who guards instruction, happiness is his” (LEB).[4]

Even the Greek translation of the Tanakh does not allow for the manner in which they were attempting to use the term:

  • “There shall be no interpreter to a sinful nation; but he that observes the law is blessed” (LXX).

Once, I had proved my case the only possible answer was to dismiss me altogether with the statement: “You’re just arguing semantics.” And then, the meeting moved on as if it never happened.

I have heard similar argumentation when people quote Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” (ESV). God says people are destroyed when they don’t seek for and embrace knowledge. As if this refers to any and all forms of knowledge.

Again, context helps us identify the meaning of the word “knowledge” even if we do not have a Hebrew dictionary. The second half of the verse shows that the knowledge that the people lack, which is the cause of their being destroyed, is they “have forgotten the law of your God” (Hos 4.6b). The reason is because they had teachers (i.e., priests and prophets) who failed to take God at His Word and give faithful instruction to His people. Which led to “cast[ing] off restraint” as the writer of the proverb above illustrated.

Aid or Hinderance…

Language and our use of it may be either a wonderful aid or a great hinderance to those whom we are speaking to. Fights ensue on theological grounds over the use of words and phrases. This war of words is not limited to what some might view as an ecclesiastical sphere, but takes place in our day-to-day life on a variety of issues. Being a political year, if we take the time to listen and weigh the words of those promoting their ideas, you will notice that the battle is one ideologically waged through the use of words.

Example regarding Politics…

Recently, I was listening (and watching) a conversation that Candace Owens had with fellow black leaders at some event (Clip from Revolt Summit; warning explicit language). Her conservative position was in the minority as could be seen with the panel of people she shared the stage with, as well as the response of the crowd. At one point she was asked what does Trump mean by “Make American Great Again,” “what’s he talking about?!? What era of American history is he referring to?!?”

One group heard the phrase “Make America Great Again,” as possibly referring to the days of segregation, or chattel slavery, or when women didn’t have the right to vote, etc. The other group, represented by Mrs. Owens, meant the values that were once held dear in terms of marriage—specifically fathers in the homes, rather than being negligent—when people worked hard for a living rather than being eager for a handout, when moral values where more in line with those held by our founders and other great leaders of the past; barring of course the atrocities that some fools committed. Though Mrs. Owens was asked the question she was shouted down by members of the panel and the crowd, because they refused to hear her definition of the phrase. It was an argument over semantics.

In Regards to Eternal Punishment…

As I noted in an earlier post in regards to Conditionalism/Annihilationism (See Here) from what I can tell the argument is one over semantics. Since that time, I have read a few articles, books, and some of the early writings of those often labeled “Church fathers” (i.e., the pastors, theologians and scholars of the early church).  I’ve also ordered a couple books on the subject from opposing sides. Until that time, I think that there are a few areas that I might address without having read those books.

What’s to be Expected…

The first has to do with the use of metaphoric language (i.e., symbolic use). The second will deal with the meaning of death in Scripture. The way I have seen it argued from the Conditionalist side is heavily geared towards cessation. If that is in fact the case, then we ought to be able to find biblical support for that position. We shall see. There is a third position that we could look into and that is heavily tied to the emotive human response to the idea of eternal punishment and/or damnation. Let it suffice to say that if both sides are honest NO ONE LIKES the idea of sinners in an eternity of torment/suffering. But the issue at hand has little to do with likes. Whether or not I like something or dislike something has no bearing on whether or not it is truth that should be embraced or rejected. The creature of God is called to submit to the Truth of God regardless of lack of total understanding and emotional bias. I may have a fourth article loosely tied to this in regards to philosophy vs. exegesis, in light of how they relate to one another. But time will tell what I decide on that point.

Until then I pray that you will have a blessed weekend. Worship the Lord while He may be found. Take advantage of today, for tomorrow is promised to none of us. God Bless.


[1] This conversation is paraphrased from the original. The content is accurate, as well as the emotional distaste of my evangelist friend, but I don’t want to act as if this is an exact transcript. Many years have passed since then, and while I don’t believe my memory is slipping I don’t want to overstate my case.

[2] James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief, E-book edition (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, [1998], 2012), 25, Kindle, loc 254.

[3] My ordination would not come until the April of 2014. By then I had left the Church of the Nazarene for doctrinal reasons, having submitted my resignation letter to my church and the District Superintendent.

[4] All italics are mine to emphasize the word in question.