Quarrels About Words

Some months ago Dane Ortlund posted an excellent meditation on 1 Tim 6:4,

…an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people…

“Quarrels about words.” That hit me hard, considering that “Usage Determines Meaning” is one of the main themes of this blog.

My first thought was guilt: I’m too focused on quarrels about words, and my blog is public proof. But my second thought is that I didn’t create the quarrels. People misusing words did. Paul does tell Titus to “rebuke those who contradict [sound doctrine].” And he told Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

But do my posts on words count? I can say that my overall point is that one of the best ways to avoid “word-battles” (λογομαχία) is to recognize the truth of James Barr’s dictum, a dictum which happens to underlie all my posts on Bible words:

Theological thought of the type found in the NT has its characteristic linguistic expression not in the word individually but in the word-combination or sentence…. [Since] important elements in the NT vocabulary were not technical…. the attempt to relate the individual word directly to the theological thought leads to the distortion of the semantic contribution made by words in contexts; the value of the context come to be seen as something contributed by the word, and then it is read into the word as its contribution where the context is in fact different. Thus the word becomes overloaded with interpretative suggestion. Semantics of Biblical Language, 233-234.

If we can focus a bit more on what the Bible says in sentences and a bit less on the supposed precise, hidden (to all but the cognoscenti) meaning of individual Greek and Hebrew words, we’ll be on more secure theological footing.

But I can also say that I don’t want to be guilty of anything the Bible warns me about. I don’t want to have “an unhealthy craving for…quarrels about words.” So I am praying that the Lord would give me grace to spot and avoid this sin. I’ve pulled back a bit since this verse was brought to my attention.

Or perhaps the answer is that no one should disagree with me. Then we won’t have any quarrels.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Quarrels About Words”

  1. The perversity that leads to the quarreling about words is an issue of the heart. 2Timothy 3:16 makes it clear that every bit of Scripture is profitable. Why are we looking into God’s Word? If it is not to be thoroughly equipped unto every good work (v.17) we have been derailed from God’s purpose and, inevitably, his blessing. We are in sin. Words get their meaning from their context and context is derived from the words used to add meaning. A balance must exist in our study. I think this is achieved through a humble approach to the study of Scripture for personal edification. Let the Word of God dwell in us and we will be less prone to judge unrighteously. Christ teaches this principle in Matthew 7:1-6. I posted a meditation on this passage last night. This meditation resulted from a long talk I had with a friend about the current state of the religious culture in the city where he lives. Unfortunately, there is much to be grieved about. The scariest thing was that I caught myself justifying attitudes similar to those that are creating the problem. If I had continued down that path I would have been derailed from God’s purpose and, inevitably, his blessing. I would be in sin. Praise God for the teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness he accomplishes through his Word!

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