We had an interesting discussion group tonight, looking at William Barclay’s commentary on John’s gospel. Barclay is thoroughly evangelical, and manages to read his entire theology into every word. I gamely tried to say that sometimes words were just words. I don’t think anyone believed me. So in the last consolation of the defeated, I’m going to say it here on my blog!
Contracts and other legal documentation use Capital Letters on words to indicate that the word is used in a very specific way, according to a specific and consistent idea, that is defined somewhere in the document. In a contract, I might write “This agreement is between Holmes Limited, with a registered address at 221b Baker Street, London (the Customer) and”. Thereafter I can write “The Customer agrees to…” and we know there’s no ambiguity: we can’t be talking about any customer, or even any company at 221b Baker Street, the meaning is definite and intended.
Some Christians tend to read the bible as if it were mostly written in Capital Letters. As if words were not words, so much as specific terms. So when, in John’s gospel, we read
God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.
— John 3:16 (tr mine)
God so Loved the World that He Gave His only Son, so Whoever Believes in Him might not Perish, but have Eternal Life.
A word like ‘Believe’ has to be read in terms of the whole canon of evangelical thought on what constitutes right and salvific Belief.
This just doesn’t seem a sane approach to me.
Now, sure, John had something in mind when he wrote those words. But what he had in mind was some underlying idea that he chose the word Belief to help communicate, not a definition of Belief. To ask what ‘Belief’ means in that verse is to allow the tail to wag the dog.
He used ‘belief’ for the same reason we all use words: to express part of our intended meaning. And by reading the whole gospel we can perhaps get closer to John’s overall idea of eternal life. For example: we might note that John also says
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life.
–John 6:54 (tr mine)
We use words not to fence off and fortify meanings, but to point towards fuzzy ideas that otherwise would defy description. And we all do that in different ways. Each of us even makes different choices of word at different times to sweep up different allusions, nudge the hearer toward different emotions, and hopefully herd them roughly in the direction we want them to go. In short, we rarely speak in upper case.
Why does this matter?
I think it matters because language is an excellent means of control. If we control the meaning of words, we subtly control the concepts that can be made out of them.
Part of evangelicalism, particularly its fundamentalist threads, is an effort to define and control the use of words in order to discredit and marginalise others who use the same words to express a different theology.
By defining Eternal Life in a particular way, and Belief in a particular way, they can point to John 3:16 and say “The bible says clearly here: if you Believe in him, you have Eternal Life.” And because the slight of hand happened when they defined both terms, you might miss that they’ve only given their own opinion.
It seems obvious to me that the writer of John’s gospel had quite a different idea of eschatology that modern evangelicalism. But I’m going further than that, why do we even assume John had some specific consistent and constrained legal definition in mind at all? Why couldn’t John just be using ‘believe’ here because he felt its existing connotations were the most helpful to make his point? A point that, in other contexts (as in John 6:54) he chose different words to express.
Figuring this out is hard for many evangelicals I think, because evangelical theology is so often about what words mean or what they should mean. Evangelical bible studies focus on getting the meanings of words right (“what is true Belief?”, “what are Spiritual Gifts?”, “how do I Know I am Saved?”). And so, even if you can make an argument that a word doesn’t mean quite what someone thinks it does, the underlying assumption that it has a Capital Letter remains.
What do you think? Have I failed to convince you too?
I’ve written before on a related topic here.