What Flag Do Your Words Wave?

The way that we view the world is reflected in the words that we use to talk about it. At Ray Van Neste’s recommendation I’m beginning to read The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism by Vernard Eller, a short little book of 56 pages. He quotes Karl Barth on the important point that the words we use reflect our thought structures:

It was, I think, Karl Barth who once said something to the effect that Christians have an obligation to become competent in the “language of Canaan” (i.e., biblical ways of thinking and speaking) rather than simply demanding that everything be translated into our language (i.e., contemporary forms of thought).

This is exactly why I am an inveterate advocate of literal Bible translation–and I refuse to stop using the word “literal” because some people sniff at it.

The point is that if we are trying to learn Biblical Theology, we are trying to access the thoughts of the biblical authors, and for that to happen we need the words they used. I know, I know: you have to make adjustments moving from one language to another, but where possible–and it is usually possible–we should maintain the actual words they used rather than rephrasing things for them. If the biblical author has used the phrase “the good hand of God,” let’s keep that rather than changing it to “the gracious hand,” or “the gracious power.” Hebrew has words for gracious and power and those words are not what the biblical author chose in this case. Are we translating? Or are we re-phrasing because we can improve on what the biblical author wrote?

Among other things, maintaining the words as far as possible helps us see how inter-connected the Bible is, as it preserves biblical intertextuality.

Eller also speaks to the way that the words we use wave certain flags:

although the feminist grammar surely is not deliberately antirhetorical, it is most deliberately political. Its linguistic innovations (such as “chairperson,” “humankind,” “God gives us God’s grace,” “he or she”) are code symbols, each a little red flag bearing the letters FA (Feminist Approved). And the game–the language game–is to score points by the amount of writing that can be labeled FA. “Look: Eller has conceded! Or, if not that, at least an editor has dragged him in. Either way, you can chalk up another one for us.”

The use of our language is not a neutral matter, nor is the translation of the Bible. Bible translators may not be consciously capitulating to the feminist agenda, but when they avoid words like “father” and choose words like “ancestor” or “family leader” instead, points are being scored.

Another reason to learn the biblical languages, and persist in them.

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  1. It is so interesting that you mention Eller’s book! I have been thinking about it off and on recently; I read and enjoyed it when it first came out, and have been going to pick it up and at least skim it again. He made some very prescient points, didn’t he?

  2. Jim,
    The importance of literal translation was brought home to me when I was trying to show my son the intertextual connection of the “visitation” of God. All the way from Joseph’s bones (Gen. 50:25, Ex. 13:19) to Ruth 1:6, to Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:68 to Jesus’ raising the widow’s son (Luke 7:16) to his Palm Sunday triumphant ride (Luke 19:44)– the word “visit” links them all. (Jim, you and I spoke about this at THINK13)
    Unfortunately, the NIV uses a different word in each passage so there is no language connection theme to follow.
    We were visiting his church this past Sunday and the pastor preached from the NIV and therefore made no connection to God’s promise in the OT to visit his people to Christ and instead made a very individualized application of Luke 19:44 as seeing one’s own personal “time” of God in their lives.

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