Hypocrisy: Word and Concept

by May 6, 2014Linguistics, Piety2 comments

Topeng_Bali These are helpful clarifications on the concept of hypocrisy. Here’s the meat, from Peter Kreeft:

The common, modern misunderstanding of hypocrisy [is] not practicing what you preach. . . . Actually, we have misdefined “hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy is not the failure to practice what you preach but the failure to believe it. Hypocrisy is propaganda.

If Kreeft is right, then hypocrisy doesn’t mean actions that don’t line up with your ideals. What person—what Christian—could possibly be anything other than a hypocrite under that definition? We all fall short of the standard we profess to uphold. We are all living in Romans 7. The thing is that, as in Romans 7, orthodox Christians profess to fall short by virtue of the abiding presence of our flesh. None of us (well, except for a few confused Wesleyans =) pretend we’re perfect. We’re church-going, holiness-seeking Christians precisely because we’re works in progress. Till we die.

But because I am a linguistics and hermeneutics pedant, I carefully used the word “concept” and not the word “word” in the first sentence of this post. Even if Kreeft’s theological definition of the concept is exactly right, and I’d like to think it is, a language is allowed to have words that mean theologically incorrect things. Hypocrisy may be a good example, because the NOAD defines hypocrisy this way:

The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

That’s exactly what Kreeft is denying. The OED is, it seems to me, closer to Kreeft:

The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretence, sham.

Whereas the operative word in the NOAD definition is “claiming,” the OED definition doesn’t place any emphasis on speech at all. There are many ways to assume false appearances of virtue which involve not a word.

Is one definition right and the other wrong? I don’t think so. You shouldn’t be quick to tell native speakers that their instinctive use of a word is wrong, especially when mainstream lexicographers with no apparent theological axe to grind tell you that’s what most people mean by that word. Without doing more research (hey, I’m a blogger!) I can’t say which definition better represents what English speakers usually mean when they use the word “hypocrisy.” Perhaps British (OED) and American (NOAD) speakers are different; that’s possible. In any case, clarification of the Christian theological concept of hypocrisy is helpful, but it’s also helpful to distinguish the concept from the word. The two are related but distinct.

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  1. Tim Miller

    In my Apologetics class at MBU I have the students write a paper to a ‘neighbor’ who says he can’t believe in God because of Christian hypocrisy. About half the students write, “Yes, all Christians are hypocrites. We fail to live up to our own standards.” The other half argue that true Christians are not hypocrites, because included in Christianity is a belief that we will fail. This seems to roughly align with your discussion. If meaning=use, then we have to ask what people mean by using hypocrite if we are to get anywhere in the conversation.

  2. Mark Ward

    Excellent. Great illustration.