Language Cannot Sit Still, Even in Church

An editor once told me I could not say that a certain contemporary theologian “channeled” Jonathan Edwards. It felt too New-Agey to him.

Usually I accept 100% of an editor’s suggested changes. I feel safer that way. But this time I protested. I felt that the editor was channeling persnicketiness. A brief tug-of-war ensued. He won; he happened to be my teacher.

Our friendly dispute offers yet another lesson about language that will be helpful for your Bible study.

Channel is, yes, a word used in New-Agey, séancey kinds of circumstances. It’s a metaphor: when Shirley MacLaine channels some spirit, she is “like” a narrow length of water connecting two larger bodies, only it’s not water but some spiritual essence that is flowing.

But languages never stop changing—a fact I never tire of mentioning, because it is so significant for Bible interpretation and for contemporary communication of the Bible’s message to others.

English has now developed a new metaphor off of the original one (!). People now commonly say things like, “President X channeled President Lincoln.” Such a sentence is not claiming that President X is engaging in New Age mumbo jumbo. No, in his mannerisms or decisions or wording he somehow mimicked Lincoln so well that it was like he was channeling him. This new sense of channel, says my dictionary, means “emulate or seem to be inspired by.”

This is the way language works. Physical things like channels become metaphors. And then those metaphors become so stable that they become, essentially, new words. People forget the old, literal meaning, or see it as a different word altogether. And then yet new metaphors are built off of the new word. (Language is so cool!)

And if you have a feeling that language shouldn’t do this, that it should just stop fidgeting and sit still, especially in church, take note: this very feature of language is found in the Bible.

Think of the word “pastor.”

The KJV uses the word “pastor” only once, in Eph. 4:11. It translates the Greek poimen. But everywhere else in the New Testament, seventeen times, this word is translated “shepherd.” Why did the KJV translators (and others to this day) choose “pastor” in this one place?

Because the context clearly shows that we’re talking about an established office in the church; the “shepherd” metaphor had become stable and, therefore, dead.

Our English word “pastor” has undergone the same process. It comes straight from the Latin word for “shepherd.” But you and I don’t hear pastor as an animal husbandry metaphor anymore. Similar things have happened with drug czar, for example, though my impression is that czar hasn’t gone quite as far on the dead-metaphor path. There’s still a whiff of Old Russia in the English word.

But, again, when I say the word pastor, I don’t smell sheep. If you insist that “pastor here in Ephesians 4 means shepherd,” you won’t quite be right. There’s a substantial difference between the two words.

My linguistics hero John McWhorter says, “One of hardest notions for a human being to shake is that a language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming.” (3) The Greek of the New Testament is frozen in time, but all its words were undergoing this same process. Understanding this feature of language is helpful for careful, accurate Bible reading.

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Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward