This post is about words about holy words, about technical words, about words that are holy and technical because they must be since the stakes are high for so many. The title is a sentence I heard made of words my Dad preached once. (It’s a 15-minute post, and I’m only saying that to ask your forgiveness. And I may really need it.)
“Hell” slipped out of my little kid mouth once, however, and my Daddy said, “Mind your language, boy.” Actually, it was “Go to Hell!” And, actually, it was more than just a warning Daddy gave me. It was punishment that I suffered for an eternity. I wasn’t even supposed to say, “Go jump in a lake.”
Knowing that, my brothers and I, playing long games of Monopoly during the long rainy season, on afternoons after we’d made a muddy mess of our clothes outofdoors, would relish one thing. We’d love it whenever anybody’s token landed on the unlucky “Go to jail” square. We’d chant in unison, loudly, “Go to Jail!” And we’d add, “go directly to jail.” And “Do NOT pass Go!” And “Do not collect $200.” You see, we could say “Jail” because it was in the rules. Also in the rules was that “Get out of jail free” card. What we’d learned in Sunday school was that “faith” was that “get out of jail free” card. And Jail, of course, was Hell. So we said Jail because we could but not Hell because we mustn’t. It was important to get the “Get out of jail free” card; and it was a must that you “get” Faith too, because so much was at stake.
Well, when older, I learned that “faith” was really English for a Greek word. And now that I’m much older, I just read what Yancy Smith wrote that James Kinneavy wrote. Kinneavy wrote Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: an Inquiry. Kinneavy wants to get the Greek word right too. So not only Baptist preachers but also rhetoricians, and not only academic scholars who are rhetoricians, but also linguists, linguists over at Better Bibles Blog, where Smith made his comment.
The funny thing is that on this word, rhetoricians and linguists and theologians and Christian preachers don’t agree. Once I was very interested in that: “beliefs” becomes “pisteis” or “proofs” or “persuasions” only in the works of Aristotle and his contemporaries. Before Aristotle and after him, well, the meanings became pretty fuzzy again, not so technical.
And in Romans, where Paul seems to make such a big big deal out of “faith” in the Christian Bibles, there’s less certainty, or much certainty with different emphases, in the Bibles of the Jews. Hmmm. More recently, I was interested in that, I mentioned some of those Jewish translations here. Here they are again (as I quote myself again quoting them):
This erasure of the Jewishness of Moses and Paul (and even Jesus) is what translators such as Willis Barnstone and David Rosenberg have had to work against.
Barnstone, in his Restored New Testament, translates as follows:
“Shaul/Saul/Paul” – quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew –
What shall we say that our forefather Avram
Discovered by way of the flesh? If Avram
Was justified by his works, he has something
To boast about, but not before God. Genesis
Says Avram believed God. For his belief
He was accounted with justice.
– Romans 4:1-3
He didn’t flag in his belief in God’s promise.
Indeed, he was strengthened in his belief,
Giving glory to God, fully persuaded
That what God promised he could fulfill.
So his faith counted as goodness in him.
– Romans 4:20-22
As Avraham had faith in God, and he
Was singled out for justice,.
– Galatians 3:6
“Yaakov (James)” – quoting LXX Genesis 15:6 if not translating the Hebrew –
And so the scripture was fulfilled that said:
…And Avraham believed God and he was counted
…Among the good.
And he was called a friend of God.
– James 2:23
(James, of course, was for [Martin] Luther, that “strawy epistle”)
Rosenberg, in his Abraham: The First Historical Biography , translates Genesis 15:6 as follows:
He trusted Yahweh, and it was accounted to him as strength.
Likewise, Robert Alter, whose Genesis translation Barnstone praises and follows with respect to translation practice, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:
And he trusted in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit.
Similarly, Everett Fox, whose English translation typically conveys the Hebrew wordplay, renders Genesis 15:6 as follows:
Now he trusted in YHWH,
and he deemed it as righteous-merit on his part.
Perhaps a “classic Jewish” translation is the JPS Englishing of Genesis 15:6 –
And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.
Now, I’m not arguing that I get to say “Hell” or any other unspeakable word. What I’m hoping for is to begin to see how the stakes for a person determine really how technical they want the definition of their important word to be. The more abstracted and less embodied the definition, it seems to me, the more they’ve needed it to be really important in their world view. I’m not saying Aristotle or my Dad was wrong or is wrong. I do think that precise definitions must be very important. For Aristotle, the word for “faith” he called “the body of the enthymeme” and he viewed that as a very important, very consequential thing for “rhetoric.” For my Dad, once upon a time, the word “faith” was the biblical word that was, for me and my brothers, that “get out of jail free” card. For me now, I’m still learning to mind my language.