LANGUAGE AS A BATTLEFIELD

Modern linguists deny that a precise and accurate reproduction of the thoughts of another is possible using the spoken or written words. The connection between words and meaning and their expression in speech or writing is an arbitrary one. Readers are said to create rather than recover meaning. Since Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale was published in 1916,the study of language has moved on. Meaning according to Saussure is simply a matter of differences; ‘map’ is ‘map’ because it is not ‘tap’ or ‘rap’ (see Chapter 6). Despite his claim that language is a closed and stable system, it is blatantly obvious that every word can only be defined by an apparently unending network of differences and that it is all but impossible to nail down a word to any specific meaning at all. Opening a dictionary does not help, for here we are faced with yet another string of words, each with its own series of defining opposites.

Any translation methodology, such as that used for the New International Version and most modern versions, that is based on this view of language cannot give us access to the unchangeable Word of God, ‘for ever settled in heaven’. Also a system of hermeneutics interpreting the biblical text according to this shifting sand of meaning can proclaim no fixed eternal truth, no eternal Gospel, but allows the Bible say anything the reader fancies at the time. We reject these views of language as contrary to what a verbally inspired Bible demands we believe about language. Apart from textual considerations, the importance of which we do not underestimate, this is first among many reasons as to why we reject out of hand all recent translations of Scripture, which are almost all based on these godless views. What we face is an evil and wicked deception, a deliberate attempt to deny that there can be anything such as truth. We cannot use methods and ideas designed to undermine the truth in order to propagate it!

In a delimited structure, or ‘open’ text, meaning runs away into chaotic senselessness. Meaning is then the by-product of a never-ending word game that prevents us binding any one word to any one meaning. Should we ever lie under a surgeon’s knife, let us hope that he will not have read his textbooks ‘dynamically’, that he knows more than approximately where my heart is, or my lungs, liver, and kidneys. Let us hope that the words in the textbooks he studied do not mean one thing to him and another to his colleagues! In reality, reading has to do with the accurate communication of precise information following agreed conventions and codes; it is not the elaborate guessing game many linguists would have us believe. In this way, the Bible can be made to mean everything and nothing. A word will not yield up meaning like a mirror does an image. Verbal inspiration becomes redundant nonsense. Meaning does not correspond in any direct way to the words that carry it, nor are the distinctions fixed either.

To be fair, linguists are not entirely unaware of many of these difficulties and some have tried to circumvent or explain them, others exploit them. The Italian writer, university professor and linguist, Umberto Eco has written extensively on ‘semiotics’, the science of signs. This way of thinking can be applied to every part of life. He distinguishes between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts. Closed texts would be those such as textbooks and instruction manuals where the precise communication of information is required. Open texts are largely literary texts, novels, poems, where the author deliberately sets out to stimulate the imagination of the readers, who create images for themselves, visualising in their minds that which is suggested by the book. This cannot always be deemed negative. There are texts that swing between the two types of text. The author of  a travel book may well create pictures in the mind of the places described with great skill, yet these pictures will be particular to each individual reader according to their own knowledge, experience, and circumstances. There will be a mixture of objective information, which is independent of the reader and of subjective conjecture drawn from the reader’s own experience. Here we see the tremendous power of the printed page to invade the privacy of our minds and direct the way we think. Writers play games with our minds in order to change the way we think, therefore let us be careful what we read, lest unaware we fall into evil ways. We become what we read, so let the Bible dominate the time we give to reading, these are pure words.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

Linguists often distinguish between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts by attributing to them what they call denotative and connotative meaning. Denotative meaning is the purely objective meaning found in a dictionary or encyclopaedia, and it means what it means whatever the experience of the reader and his ability to understand it. Strictly speaking, connotative meaning cannot really be called meaning at all because it actually describes the subjective response of individuals to an objective denotative meaning. For example, I may look up the word ‘Paris’ in a lexicon and find something like: ‘the name of the capital city of France’. This would be the denotative, objective, unchangeable meaning. We will know what a city is by having had a city pointed out to us, so that understanding will be dependent upon memory and experience, we once more internalise that which was external. Do we not know what a city is, then it must be explained to us drawing upon other things we have seen, so that we will often be told it is ‘like’ this or that. The extent of our understanding will often be dependent upon our experience. This does not determine the actual meaning of the word ‘city’; it only prescribes the extent of our understanding of what a city is. The connotative ‘meaning’, or better still ‘response’ rather than meaning, would conjure up for us pictures of the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, the Seine, and involve my memory of these places should I have ever been there as a tourist. It is largely subjective. A daily commuter from St Denis will view Paris very differently, the crowded ‘metro’, the rush to the office. This subjective connotative ‘meaning’ is variable, unstable, dependent upon circumstances, and will necessarily be different for each person. Meaning is in essence always objective and denotative, not dependent upon the reader, and the Word of God must always be read in this way. At times, we will read things in the Bible that are outside our experience and we shall need help in order to come to a proper understanding.

Eugene Nida has drawn precisely the same distinction by describing some translations as having ‘dynamic equivalence’ and others ‘formal equivalence’. The dynamic translation is one that deliberately exploits the connotative response of the reader to the text and calls that meaning; its meaning exists primarily in the mind of the reader. A faithful translation of the Bible communicates to us God’s thoughts; they prevail over all the thoughts of men. The connotations arising as we read make up our reaction to what God has said fixedly, these will vary from reader to reader according to our circumstances, understanding, and experience, but we must never ever confuse these with the objective meaning of what is before us on the page. The Bible does not mean what it means to me, it means what God gave it to mean quite apart from me. With the gracious illumination of the Spirit of God, I can recover that meaning, so that God’s thoughts on the page before me become mine.

The final and complete break between words and meaning, dividing ‘signifier’ from the ‘signified’, came with what is known as ‘post-structuralism’. Foremost among post-structuralists is the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida is known for a method of textual criticism called ‘deconstruction’. Others who work in the same way in their own fields include: the French historian Michael Foucault, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the feminist critic and philosopher Julia Kristeva.

In 1968 there were student riots on the streets of Paris and Berlin that swept right across Europe attacking the authoritarianism of the institutions of learning, even threatening to collapse the French state. The return of Charles de Gaulle from exile led to a crushing defeat for the ‘revolutionary’ student forces in France in the name of patriotism, law, and order. In Germany the resistance lingered on in the small but very active student terrorist groups, Bader-Meinhof and RAF, eventually to fizzle out altogether, disappearing into various sections of the environmentalist ‘greens’. This euphoric carnival of revolutionary chaos, unable to defeat the existing structures of state institutions by physical force, turned in on itself and in post-structuralism found a way instead to subvert language and destroy institutions effectively from inside. At least, in this way it was possible to avoid having a policeman’s bullet pass through your head! That which was once open now began to work secretly, hidden away from public gaze. The enemy was any coherent ‘hierarchical’ belief-system offering a total, or ‘big picture’ view of life. Anarchistic spontaneity replaced systematic thought of any kind, which was condemned as repressive. There was not even now a system as a whole to fight against, such a thing did not exist – how this was known to be so was never explained. Organised left-wing politics was abandoned for ‘decentred’ alternatives, local political projects. Dogma was damned, whether capitalist or Stalinized Marxism.

At this point, language itself takes centre stage displacing terror as a means of political and intellectual subversion. Derrida sought to show that all ideas of truth, reality, knowledge, and meaning depended upon a ‘naïve’ understanding of language in which meaning was represented directly by appropriate words, this would include a biblical view. Words, he said, are not a stand-in for reality. Meaning being the fleeting product of words and inherently unstable, it is partly present and partly absent in the word. This effectively kills off all possibility of the communication of truth, reality, and meaning. Reality is constructed immediately by language rather than language being a reflection of it. The only reality to be known is that of our own discourse. The interpretation of a text, biblical or literary, had been concerned largely with understanding the meaning of the past. It now remained to be asked whether there was any past to be known other than as part of the function of the present discourse.

Meaning is not immediately present in a word, because meaning is equally a matter of what the word is not and so is always in some sense absent from it. Words are only what they are because of what other words are and equally what they are not. Furthermore, each time a word is used, because the context of that use will be different, so too will the meaning. No two situations ever being the same – change being the constant watchword – it becomes impossible to speak of words as having an ‘original’ meaning. How then, we ask, can God give us His Word given this situation? He cannot. Meaning will be scattered in some nebulous and undefined way along a whole string of words. Reading becomes rather like watching one of those very jerky early movie films on a projector in which the film keeps slipping! The sense of a sentence is not mechanically found in a combination of individual words. Any meaning there may be in a text contains elements of the words gone before and those coming after them. In some way, the whole chain of meaning in any one instance is shot through with that of all other meanings. No one word is ever ‘pure’ or its meaning final, but together with all other words form an inexhaustible complex network meanings. We read that the “words of the Lord are pure words” (Psalm 12:6), they mean what they mean, words and meanings have to be identical with themselves. Furthermore, it is only possible that these words should be kept and preserved “from this generation for ever” (v.7), if there truly is a stability to language, something these godless philosophers and word game specialists deny. They give us language where nothing is really definable, and everything is entangled within everything else. Were all this actually the case, speaking and writing would be like untangling an endless ball of wool with which an infinite number of kittens had been playing. Words cannot mean anything definite, for nothing is ever fixedly present in them. It simply is not possible for one person to convey to another what is in his heart and mind, because the meaning will always divide up and float away. If language is so unstable, then I too am unable to communicate with myself – to think. The idea of man himself as a stable being also disappears.

A biblical view of language is ‘phonocentric’ in the sense that the language of the living voice precedes any written language. It is also ‘logocentric’ in the sense that the Word (lógos) of God is the foundation of all our thought, language, and human experience. As we have seen, remove this and language disintegrates. To create, it was sufficient that ‘God said’. Things are what they are because God created them that way, including language. As we name these things and describe their actions and states, we convey meaning and sense only because there is an inseparable bond between signifier and signified, between words and their meaning. To drive a wedge between the two is to fall into meaningless and chaos, infinite ambiguity. The Word of God is the meaning of meanings, the fulcrum upon which the whole system of truth moves, it is the Sign around which all others revolve and which they reflect. For this to be so, the Word of God must have pre-existed all other words.

Jacques Derrida labels all such structured thought systems, religious, political, or philosophical, each with their own hierarchy of meaning, as ‘metaphysical’. He believes it is difficult for us to rid ourselves of something that is so embedded in our history and social consciousness. Even his own work he views as thus ‘contaminated’ by metaphysical thought. There must be a complete break with all structured hierarchical ways of thinking – especially those including a God who defines all things. All such defining first principles are to be ‘deconstructed’. Within the ‘structuralist’ system (Saussure), principles and meanings are defined by what they exclude. For ‘man’ to be defined, he must ceaselessly shut out ‘woman’ as his opposite. She is all that he is not, and a reminder therefore of what he is. Yet, contradictorily he needs to accept woman and give her a positive identity just as desperately as he needs to reject her for without her, he cannot define himself. Although parasitically dependent upon her, he feels the need to subordinate and exclude her. At the same time, she represents something within himself that he needs to repress to maintain his own identity. The negative hides within its opposite the positive. Feminists, race and gender freaks, sodomites and lesbians, all draw on this outrageous thinking. Once we leave the God-revealed account of human creation and the order and meaning it provides for human existence, this sort of appalling drivel replaces it.

Authoritarian ‘ideologies’ erect rigid boundaries between what is true and false, between self and ‘non-self’, sense and nonsense, sanity and madness. These barriers are to be deconstructed. Whilst Saussure’s structuralism was content to recognise these oppositions, Derrida’s deconstruction aims to show how the thesis and antithesis (Marx), truth and falsehood, light and dark, secretly exist one within the other and then to unravel the logic ruling them by exposing the inherent contradictions. Post-structuralism is an utterly hypocritical position permitting criticism of everyone else’s point of view without having to suggest an alternative. Nothing is true or even serious, so no answers are postulated. Texts are squeezed until every possibility of any meaning is drained from them. The aim of deconstruction is to dismantle all systems of truth and the institutions arising from them. Ultimately, it is a reiteration of the ancient cry, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14).

What we are determines the way we use language. Consequently, if the way in which we use language can be undermined, so can the authoritarian belief-systems which determine it and society can be changed. At least, that is the idea. The possibility of the communication of truth, as in Scripture, is intimately bound up with a particular view of language that structuralism and post-structuralism has deliberately set about to undermine. Language generally and grammar in particular reflect precisely the way we look at all things. We cannot observe or think about anything without doing so ‘grammatically’. We then give external expression to the manner in which we have been thinking in speech, or in writing as the codified form of speech.

Those able to influence the way language is used will also direct the way in which the users of that language think. To manipulate language is to manipulate the processes by which we all think.

Educationalists, guided by structuralist and then by post-structuralist thinking, have been training teachers in this methodology since the 1930s and have dictated the methods by which children are taught to read and use the English language. The way that children think is guided more than anything else by how they are taught the English language.
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6)

Train a child in godless ways of thinking at a young age and even after a sound conversion to Christ, it can take years before this is recognised and eradicated. It is essential that our children be taught habits of thinking and reading that coincide with a biblical view of language. This will have a significant effect on the way in which they approach the reading of the Bible, and even determine to what extent they can read it properly at all. Teaching Latin in ‘Grammar Schools’ had more to do with teaching pupils to think than it did with anything else. Few would make use of it after leaving school, but all would have developed their ability to think and reason along classical lines, to a greater or lesser degree. The particular structures of different languages go a long way to explain why French people think in a somewhat different way than do their German neighbours, and English-speakers think differently again.

In his book, The Alphabetic Effect (1986), Dr Robert K. Logan of the University of Toronto has gone so far as to say that even the writing system itself affects the way we reason. An ideographic system of writing, such as Chinese or Japanese, he maintains, is less conducive to abstract scientific thinking than an alphabetic script. To change the way we speak, to change the way we write, will necessarily change the way we think. Fortunately, the godless purveyors of this new way of looking at language are not entirely successful, nor can they succeed as they would wish, for their views being false can never work. Despite this, the confusion they cause is horrendous.

It comes to us with little surprise that those who believe the meaning of a sentence is somehow sprinkled along its length like sugar on a pudding tell our trainee teachers that reading is for children a ‘psycholinguistic guessing game’. Although these methods are not altogether successful, nevertheless, many children leave school functionally illiterate to join an increasingly uneducated and ignorant populace. Eighty-nine percent of youngsters in Britain, should they read anything, will not reach beyond the disjointed and often verbless garbage of the picture-strewn tabloid press. Even Christian classics are now being republished in ‘simplified English’ because they are deemed too difficult for modern readers. If this is not grossly patronising, then it is patently tragic. Modern bible versions fit this mindset as a casting does its die.

All modern bible translations, but especially those translated by ‘dynamic equivalence’, are largely designed for ‘dynamic’ reading. The reader is not recovering a communication given by God once-for-all-time in the past, but listening for the voice of God from a string of words that have no fixed meaning. They may say one thing to one person and something quite different to someone else, depending upon the circumstances. The same words may even say something different to the same person on different occasions. Truth is in the end what the reader makes it. There is no underlying fixed meaning. No single reading of this bible is right or wrong, just different. The reader is not a passive recipient but an active co-creator to whom the bible text provides reading ‘cues’.

This is how our children are taught to read in state schools today. Text books used in teacher training colleges throughout the land will say that reading is not about retrieving meaning from the text, it is not decoding, but creating a variety of meanings. There can be no single given meaning for any text only plausible meanings – whatever that means, if it can mean anything at all! A biblical understanding of language binds it immediately to an objective revelation of the truth, something that can be known only when, with the illumination of God’s Spirit, we ‘decode’ the authentic Scripture text accurately having regard to grammar and vocabulary. Modern translations, even those using the so-called ‘formal equivalence’ translation method, are not designed to be read in this way. Today’s readers will often find it difficult to read the Authorised Version, not because it is ‘old’ language, but because they have not been taught to read in the way the structure of its language demands. God, not the reader, is the Creator of the meaning of Scripture and He has something to say to us. Those who approach the Bible with any other conviction than this are condemned to remain sitting in deep darkness. Contemporary linguistic methods cast a veil over the Word of God.

David W. Norris

Taken from David’s book THE BIG PICTURE: the authority & integrity of the authentic Word of God. See publications page.