In Calvin’s commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, he argues that “meaning is a function of use.” Now, we may debate over how that is worked out in Seneca or we may debate on how that gets worked out in the rest of Calvin’s later writings. And, while that might be a valuable conversation, my interest in this is how that idea has developed and been applied (and arguably mis-applied) in our modern context.
In principle, Calvin’s point is that languages grow and change over time based on the usage of the people. Further, many words are defined by their context. For example, the word “slug” has numerous uses from a measure of weight, to a punch, to something that goes in a shotgun shell, to a squishy mollusk that is the bane of most gardeners. In older uses, when printing presses were more common, a slug was a metal bar with letters and words on it and a “sluggard” is a lazy slow-poke. Further, words like nice, awesome, awful, gay, and clue meant something very different than they mean today. So, there is great truth in the matter that meaning is a function of usage.
Yet, we have entered into a society where meaning has become so fluid that almost anyone can redefine terms. This not only enters into how slang is used (in my generation, being “bad” was a good thing and in my son’s generation, if something was “sick” that meant it was a really good thing), but it also being to rob ideas of their objectivity. And this trend is dangerous.
In society, perhaps the most prominent of the changes has been the separation of the idea of gender from that of sex. According to their fundamental definitions, sex deals with biology and gender deals with roles and cultural expectations placed upon a person. Yet, historically, while the notion of “gender roles” has varied from culture to culture, it has always had a distinct connection to the biology of those who practice said roles. In other words, sex has largely been seen as the outward expression of an inward reality. That is, until today’s existentialism has permitted people to arbitrarily define their inward reality.
As someone who deals with people at the very heart of what I do, this shift is curious to me. When the “Women’s Lib” movement really began, it seemed like what they were striving for was a removal of gender roles — or at least to make them flexible enough that there was overlap in every area of society. This mindset would put them at odds with the modern Transsexual movement, which seems to be heightening the distinction between gender roles while also divorcing gender from biological sex. Yet, such does not seem to be the case.
While the aforementioned transformation is taking place in the broader society, the matter that concerns me the most is taking place in the church where ideas and doctrines are being redefined based on the whim and curiosity of the leadership. And, regardless of what you think on the whole gender question, this is infinitely more important because this matter has eternal consequences. While people have always challenged ideas held by the orthodox Christian church, today they are challenging said ideas while still referring to themselves as “Christian.” People reject the doctrine of the Trinity, of Creation, of Justification, the Resurrection, and of the inspiration of Scripture — things that are essential to the Christian faith and still place the name “Christian” in their churches. Furthermore, tolerance and “being respectful” of others has become so ingrained in our society, when pastors warn their congregations against the wolves in sheep’s clothing, he is often criticized as being intolerant, too dogmatic, or just unpleasant.
While words are flexible in terms of their usage, they still have meaning or at least a semantic range within which, based on context, they can be used. If you lose that, then any word can mean anything and “Dog, dog, dog, dog” can mean, “pick me up at 3:30 tomorrow afternoon.” Further, if you are defining terms differently than I am and we have not first established a basis of meaning for the words, we can be talking about two radically different things, yet we assume that we are speaking about the same thing. It is the Tower of Babel embraced by men and no longer seen as a mark of God’s judgment. In logic, this is called the fallacy of equivocation…yet, sadly, in common usage, it seems like it has moved from being a fallacy to a virtue. Like the word, “aweful,” which once meant “to be filled with awe,” it has seemingly turned its meaning entirely upside down and inside out to mean precisely the opposite of what it originally meant.
And we return to Calvin who would, I think it fair to say, be entirely disgusted with the games that the church plays in the name of Christ. He would say that while the church is trying to be nice, it is actually being “nice” in the sense of its original root: nescius — to be ignorant or stupid. A sad testimony for many churches in our day and age. Fighting words, indeed.