The Meaning of Words, a Man’s Word, the Word of God–Part I

We live in a paradox in the world of blogs. On the one hand, the importance and power of words underlies the whole blogging enterprise. On the other hand, post-modern thought tends to downplay the meaning of words per se and centers meaning in the hearer. The former is the underlying assumption of this post. The latter is a malignancy which threatens not just language, but faith, trust, integrity, and any sense of Truth. As Lutherans, we are very aware of the centrality of God’s Word not only in theology, but in the very existence of the Church and the genesis of faith. As Christians, especially as theologians, we have a decided interest in words and meanings. We also trust that no matter how much men may try to empty words of their meaning, no matter how worthless a man’s word may be, VDMA.
From my perspective, the whole post-modern enterprise is a matter of deception. It is a matter of deconstruction and reconstruction. What this entails in regard to words is to render words meaningless or to at least raise doubts as to the meaning of words. The reconstruction then takes those emptied words and fills them with a new meaning. The deception lies in the deconstruction and reconstruction taking place within a circle of elites or within the mind of an individual de- /re-constructor. The change in meaning does not take place by consensus or a process of seeking clarity and understanding, but by purposefully cultivating ambiguity. The hearer thinks he/she knows what is being heard. The de- /re-constructor is aware of what the hearer thinks, but subtly changes meanings without the consent or participation of the hearer. Were the de- /re-constructor to openly engage in changing meanings, the changes would be likely be resisted as the intent of the changes became transparent. This is not just a matter of theory, but of daily practice among many entrusted with words.
For theologians, this literally becomes a matter of life and death — eternal life and death. When those entrusted with not just words, but the Word of God, de- and re-construct, they are in effect engaged in deceit. The words are reshaped sometimes to have a meaning contrary to what once was known as the clear meaning.
Lutherans are in the midst of changes being effected by this de- /re-construction of meaning. It is happening in different ways in different synods or church bodies. The newly changed meanings may differ, but the result is the same: words once having agreed upon meanings are given new meanings without discussion, reflection, or consent. The change is dictated by those who acquire power or influence. They maintain their power by insisting that the words have not changed. They conveniently neglect to mention that they regard words as mere vessels which can be filled with any meaning which they (those in power) choose. Any attempt to challenge the changes is met with various tactics which avoid real discussion, reflection, or consent. One tactic is to insist that the same words are being used, so there is no reason to worry about meaning. This can lead to serious misunderstandings. For example, Mormons baptize in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit. Their understanding, however, is not even close to the meaning agreed upon at Chalcedon. but rather a sort of tri-theism. The question which shaped our learning as catechumens was, “What does this mean?” It is a question avoided not just by Mormons, but by those within the Church who would change meanings in order to be “relevant.”
One might expect that such deception and self-deception would take place only in “liberal” denominations. Mere conservativism does not impart immunity to the ravages of de- /re-constructors. Conservatives might be less likely to merely jettison established terms. They may, however, be just as suceptible to deceiving themselves or being deceived by claims that the use of certain words is evidence that change has not taken place. Allow me to give an actual example. Lutheran theologians are well acquainted with Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator. At a conference on post-modernism I attended, a Lutheran pastor remarked that the concept of simul justus et peccator was Lutheranism’s gift to the rest of Christianity. He went on to note that simul justus et peccator means that the task of a Christian is to balance out the good and evil in his life. I was outraged, but could not get recognition by the discussion leader in order to point out that Taoism was being clothed in Lutheran terms. The discussions plodded on, but no one dared or was allowed to point out the crass change in meaning which had been asserted and accepted. Looking back, I should perhaps have simply broken into the discussion and pointed out the deceit. That would probably have had the effect of my being chastized as being rude and coarse, which would have excused everyone from having to reflect on the distortions inherent in the new take on simul justus et peccator. Even when the de- /re-construction is noticed by someone, niceness and calls for unity are used to smother discussion and reflection. Under such circumstances, consensus is not arrived at, but imposed — however soft the imposition might be.
Thus far I have laid this out in general terms. There are two concrete circumstances which cry out for discussion and reflection. I ask the reader to join in that process to counteract the de- /re-construction taking place in the ELCA and LC-MS. The process is quite far along in the ELCA and permeates much of the thinking among the elite and a good portion of the clergy. The laity are for the most part unaware of what is happening—no discussion, no reflection. If they ask questions, they are given non-answers or outright lies. The struggle has gained its focus in the attempts to re-define marriage, chastity, and the Biblical understanding of sexuality. I ask the reader to reflect on the re-definition of family, the disengaging of sexuality from pro-creation, the various efforts to undermine the clear witness of Scripture in regard to homosexual behavior, the tendency to silence or ignore the voice who still take “What does this mean?” seriously. There are many other fronts on which the de- /re-construction is being implemented: the doctrine of sin, Christology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, etc. Once one begins to reflect, one sees just how much the process has insinuated itself into the fabric of faith and life in the ELCA. I invite you to share insights into the present situation. I also invite you to join in discussing remedies.
In the LC-MS the process has not yet permeated thought and practice to the extent it has in the ELCA, but it is well on its way. It manifests itself on a different front, but based on what has happened in the ELCA and other bodies, it could likely end at the same destination: a Lutheran Church which is no longer confessional and sadly no longer church. The church is kyrieke —that which belongs to and pertains to the Lord. If the world becomes the measure and determines the means and the goals, the church will belong to the world rather than to Christ who redeemed the church. Then the meaning of “church” will have been radically changed. It will be as oxymoronic as “Wiccan Church”. That is the danger. Where and how is this happening? Declarations are made that no one understands the language of the church, the traditional liturgy is no longer relevant, doctrine alienates people, people want something new. This is all a part of the de-construction process. The solution offered is not to renew, revitalize, recatechize, but to re-construct. That process affects music, architecture, divine service, sacramental practice. It is not merely a matter of the same content and meaning in updated forms like changing “thee” to “you.” It is a matter of changing meaning, of offering a different Gospel. As the Apostle Paul makes clear in his Epistle to the Galatians, a different gospel is not a matter of indifference. The pillow of unity and cushion of civility are wielded to silence and smother cries for the Truth. Sometimes more aggressive forms of suppression are employed as in the case of Issues, Etc. Again, I invite the reader to reflect with me and others on both the de-construction and re-construction taking place in the LC-MS. I also invite you to offer remedies.
Please join me in Part II for further reflections.


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