Words Aren’t What They Used to Be

Anyone who reads thoughtfully knows that words often change their meaning with time and context. Christians are a “peculiar people,” the KJV tells us, only “peculiar” did not mean in 1611 what it means today. Sometimes an older meaning of a word continues in a restricted sector of the culture, even though most people use it in quite a different way: e.g., for most readers today, God’s gift is not “unspeakable” but “indescribable” (2 Cor 9:15), even though a conservative fringe of the populace confuse the two words. Sometimes a difference in meaning or overtone is triggered not by the passage of time, but by a different context. “Redemption” in the arcane legal terminology of a mortgage document does not conjure up exactly the same images as the use of the word in the New Testament.

All of this is common knowledge. These examples are innocuous precisely because the change in meaning is widely recognized. Far more inimical to careful conversation are those expressions whose meanings, or whose associations, are frequently unrecognized. Here are a few of them.

1. Guilt

For many decades now, “guilt” has sometimes referred to culpability, but very commonly referred to what might better be thought of as feelings of guilt. Our judicial systems try to establish the guilt or innocence of accused parties, regardless of whether those parties feel guilty; by contrast, our counselors often focus their attention on the guilt feelings of their clients, taking relatively little notice of the extent to which guilt feelings may be grounded in guilt. All of this, as I indicated, has been understood for a long time. When preachers talk about “penal substitutionary atonement,” they understand that the punishment is merited: before God the party is guilty and deserves the penalty which, in the case of substitutionary atonement, is discharged by another. This does not mean that wise pastors overlook the terrible burden of guilt feelings. Guilt feelings may be the psychological result of real guilt. Sometimes, however, people feel terribly guilty over things that have no valid tie to real guilt (as, for example, when a woman is sexually assaulted as she walks home from work, yet labors for years under guilt feelings [or shame? See further below.]). The careful application of passages about the cross of Christ rightly addresses both our guilt and our feelings of guilt. Efforts to expunge the latter without addressing the former may leave a sinner feeling better about themselves, but still unreconciled to God; and exclusive emphasis on addressing the real guilt before God may generate a cerebral grasp of the nature of penal substitution without providing much comfort.

All of this is common discourse in Evangelical and Reformed circles, and in some others as well. The reason for bringing it up again is that current cultural pressures are making the potential misunderstandings worse, and harder to clear up. To incur guilt, one must have committed an offense, whether against another individual, against the state (or the law, or the crown, or the like), or against God. Some offenses (e.g., theft) against individuals can be addressed by restitution (perhaps with an additional percentage, as in the OT); some cannot (e.g., rape). Traditionally, to avoid a swamp of subjectivity or, worse, a vendetta, most cultures have established a codification of personal offenses and the corresponding punishments for the guilty. Steal someone’s cow, and this is what will happen to you. Today, however, even though much of such codification still prevails, so much emphasis in Western culture is laid on the individual and his or her “rights” that new offenses against the individual are being discovered (or invented) every day. Who decides when an “offense” against an individual has been committed? When the individual feels offended? There is now not only tension between being guilty and feeling guilty, but between being guilty according to some codification of law and feeling the other party is guilty even though no code has been breached (or it has been breached only by the most egregiously creative legal extensions).

More serious is the culture’s increasing suspicion of external authority, whether that of God, of the state, or of traditional values. The broad sweep of what that looks like, for good and ill, has been discussed endlessly and need not be canvassed again here. For our purposes it is enough to observe that the traditional understanding of guilt, of culpability, over against guilt feelings, requires the authority of a God or a state or an adopted statute to transgress. If I become my own authority for right and wrong, it is difficult to see how there can be any form of “guilt” that transcends guilt feelings. In that case, there is no need for a sacrifice to deal with that guilt, either.

So in our evangelism, we simply must reserve space for talking about the God who is offended, and thus the nature of guilt, and thus God’s solution to this guilt. The gospel provides more than psychological comfort.

2. Shame

For several decades, missionaries and other culture commentators have pointed out that while much of the Western world fastens its attention on guilt, most of the Eastern world fastens its attention on shame. In such a context, if you present Christ as the one who deals with our guilt, the argument will not resonate as much as an argument that asserts Jesus deals with our shame.

Anyone who has spent time in, say, Southeast Asia, knows there is something to this analysis. One may go further and say that our increasing cross-cultural awareness in this global world affords Christians the opportunity to study the Bible afresh, and recognize the place that both guilt and shame play in its pages. Certainly both guilt and shame surface at the introduction of sin (Gen 3); indeed, they are so entangled that it is sometimes difficult to separate them, except in analytical terms.

Once again, however, just as there is “guilt” and “guilt”—the Bible focuses on guilt before God while we tend to focus on guilt feelings—so also is there “shame” and “shame.” As far as I can see, most shame cultures worry about loss of face before family and friends. People worry about doing something that brings shame on the family, lets down the side, makes it difficult to face neighbors. The fear of bringing shame on yourself or your family becomes a powerful motivation to conform to accepted norms. Of course, both guilt and shame operate in both the East and the West, but there is a preponderant emphasis on shame in the East.

Yet the emphasis on shame in the Bible is not first and foremost with reference to peers and to family, but to God. Adam loses face before God, and hides from him in the garden. In other words, our deepest shame is the loss of face we bear before God, not before our parents. Because God himself tells us we are to honor our parents, shaming our parents cannot be entirely separated from shaming God. Yet where a shame culture focuses almost entirely on horizontal relationships, it is still not ready to learn how the gospel addresses our shame. Instead of glorifying God, we have brought shame to his name. In a shame culture, it is necessary to demonstrate that, in the light of what the Bible says about God, our deepest shame humbles us before the living God, who alone can raise us up.

3. Conscience

The best concise recent treatment of conscience is doubtless that of Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley.1 My interest here is a little more historically focused: How has one’s understanding of conscience changed with the changing of the worldview in which it is embedded?

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Richard Hooker (1554–1600) sought a path between the Catholic churchmanship of the past and the Calvinist churchmanship influenced by Geneva. After 1588 and the destruction of the Spanish Armada, the dangers from the Catholic side were substantially dissipated. Doctrinally, Hooker largely disagreed with Trent but was more open to the late medieval theologians than some of his Calvinist peers. This led to complex discussions about the desirability (or otherwise!) of freedom of conscience. At a time when church and state together imposed the standards of churchmanship and worship that the ruling parties thought acceptable throughout the state, to argue that it could be good for the nation to allow some flexibility grounded in the conscience of the individual believer was innovative. But note well that this was not freedom to choose anything; one’s conscience was constrained by the given revelation, by the authority of God. The question was how to interpret it. Even a century later, when John Locke (1632–1704) advocated a much broader freedom of conscience, it was in some ways constrained by Deist assumptions.

By contrast, freedom of conscience today is not far from an appeal to let everyone do that which is right in their own eyes. There is no eternal referent to which appeals might be made for a different interpretation; conscience is individualistic and self-referring.

4. Tolerance

It has often been pointed out that in the past every culture displays both tolerance and intolerance. There may be less tolerance where a regime is more dictatorial, or where the plausibility structures are copious and interlocking,2 but every regime allows a certain amount of dissent, perhaps because it is impossible to control everything, perhaps because of a belief that it is good for the society to permit and perhaps even foment differences of opinion.

All of this is simply a clumsy way of saying that in the past, whether in the time of Tiglath-Pileser III, the time of Louis XIV, the time of Queen Victoria, or the time of Teddy Roosevelt, tolerance presents itself as a parasitic virtue. By this I mean that it is a virtue that necessarily feeds off larger cultural values and virtues: it was always a question of how much deviation from the cultural norms could be considered good for the culture. Tolerance was neither an independent virtue nor an independent vice: it was always perceived as either a good or at least a useful deviation from larger norms, or a wicked and dangerous deviation from those norms—but in any case, it had no meaning apart from those norms which gave it shape.

But in some calls for tolerance today, tolerance seeks to project itself as an independent virtue, perhaps the most important virtue. I have argued elsewhere that this turns out to be intellectually confusing and morally perverse. It is intellectually confusing because it makes little sense to speak of tolerating something or other unless one disagrees with it: one cannot meaningfully say that a Christian tolerates an atheist, or vice versa, until one establishes that they disagree. It is not tolerance unless one first disagrees; if there is no disagreement, one may speak of moral indifference, or ignorance of the other’s position, or carelessness, but not of tolerance. This elevation of tolerance to the level of independent virtue is not only intellectually confusing, however, but morally perverse. It is morally perverse because it proves to be spectacularly intolerant toward those who claim certain other positions are wrong. In the name of tolerance, this new so-called tolerance adopts intolerance.

What should be clear by now from all four of these examples is that the dramatic differences in meaning is a correlative of the loss of God, or at least the loss of an external standard. Guilt becomes guilty feelings with special ease when there is no God or law before whom or which we are objectively guilty; shame becomes loss of face before peers if there is no God before whom to be ashamed. Freedom of conscience becomes sanction to do whatever I want to do, instead of the right to interpret what God has given. And tolerance becomes either an incoherent mess, or, at best, nothing more than a poorly grounded plea to be nice.

The urgency of thinking and speaking worldviewish presses on us ever harder.

D. A. Carson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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