It’s Just Semantics! Oh, Really?


“… He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” – 1 Timothy 6:4-5 (ESV)

 

“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” – 2 Timothy 2:14 (ESV)

 

 

 

Sometimes when people want to dismiss what someone else is saying as being irrelevant or unimportant or as something they just don’t want to address, they respond “It’s just semantics!” or “You’re talking semantics!” or with similar phrases that contain the word semantics. Whether it’s because they think that they and the other person are saying the same thing or (often wrongly) whatever differences there might be in the words has no bearing on what they think is the meaning of what’s being said or, again, they want to dismiss what the other person is saying out of hand, they’re showing their own ignorance – that they just don’t have a clue!

 

First, as I said, it’s dismissive – intended to shut the other person down. Second, it’s a pejorative (and wrong) use of the word semantics. They’re being disrespectful to the person they say it to (or about) – “tolerance” and “diversity” don’t seem to apply when these people (very often people on the left, the same people who drone on endlessly about the need for “tolerance” and “diversity”) don’t want to hear what others have to say. (I don’t care if they claim they “don’t mean to be” disrespectful; they’re lying – they most certainly do mean to be disrespectful or they wouldn’t be dismissive in the first place).

 

Let me offer an example. Recently journalism professor David Guth tweeted to his followers regarding the Navy Yard shooting “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” (Oh, those hash tags are so annoying)! There were some people commenting on this in a veterans group that I belong to on Facebook; one of them said that this guy was threatening children and should be punished. I responded that he didn’t make a threat. The person dismissed my comment as “semantics.” The problem here isn’t that he was being dismissive and, therefore, disrespectful (I don’t care about that – as long as the person is being disrespectful because of what I say or write and not what he or she thinks I said or wrote), it’s that he was just plain wrong – and in a way that, if someone acted on it, could get David Guth arrested, hurt or maybe even killed.

 

In this case, it isn’t “just semantics” (more about semantics later). There is a huge linguistic and, more important, legal difference between expressing a wish that what happens at mass shootings like the one at the Navy Yard would happen to the children of NRA members, as Guth did, and threatening to kill (or arrange to have killed) the children of NRA members, which Guth didn’t do. (He also wasn’t inciting a riot or inciting others to act violently toward NRA members’ children). The former (expressing a wish) is an exercise of free speech (no matter how vile or, to be gracious, “ill advised” the speech might be); the latter (making a threat, inciting a riot or inciting others to act violently) is a crime and potentially a danger to others.

 

As an aside, even though freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of America’s Constitution, many of my fellow Americans have really become a bunch of whiney crybabies running off to mommy (or to the media or to the government) every time someone says something that hurt their pwecious widdle feewings. To quote someone who has asked to remain anonymous, “…we really need to knock off this childish whining to mommy government every time someone says something we don’t like.” Freedom of speech must be free for everyone or it is free for no one. We don’t have to like or agree with what others say, and we’re free to openly criticize what others say. But in a society that claims freedom of speech as one of its core values, we do have to recognize that they have as much right to say what they say (or, in the case of David Guth, tweet) as we like to think we have.

 

Okay, let’s get back to semantics.

 

In the modern – and, I would argue, inappropriate – use of the word semantics, it’s a dismissive way of saying that what someone said is just another way of saying the same thing (thus confusing semantics with synonymous) or that what someone said is splitting hairs or nit-picking or is otherwise irrelevant. It’s a way of justifying linguistic laziness – of saying “I don’t have to be accurate in what I say and if you try to point out my inaccuracy, I’m going to bully you into submission by making you look like you’re a pedantic prick.”

 

Semantics is the study of meaning in language and part of the fields of linguistics. From Merriam-Webster’s Concise Encyclopedia: “Linguists have approached it in a variety of ways. Members of the school of interpretive semantics study the structures of language independent of their conditions of use. In contrast, the advocates of generative semantics insist that the meaning of sentences is a function of their use. Still another group maintains that semantics will not advance until theorists take into account the psychological questions of how people form concepts and how these relate to word meanings.” Also, semantics and phonology combine to form syntax. Semantics is also the use of words to achieve a desired effect (something advertisers, lawyers, politicians, and propagandists often do). Words have meaning: if they didn’t, there would be no communication.

 

Let me give you an example of the importance of semantics, of the meaning of words:

 

In 425 A.D., a Christian bishop named Arius taught that Christ was a divine being created by God and, therefore, ontologically subordinate to Him. When his teaching was debated in a Church Council held at Nicea, he accused the Council of teaching Sabellianism, an earlier heresy in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit were just different modes in which the one God operated at different times. (Arius had, for years, been leveling that charge against others in disputes over the nature of Christ’s divinity).

 

The issue before the Council came down to semantics, the meaning of words and of two words in particular: homoousion (the same essence or substance) and homoiousion (of like essence or substance). The difference in the spelling was a single Greek letter, the iota (from which we get expressions like “There’s not an iota of difference”), but the difference in the doctrines represented by the two words was as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Arius argued that Christ’s divinity was similar to that of the Father, but wasn’t the same and, in fact, was both created by and ontologically subordinate to the Father’s divinity. The Council disagreed and said that Christ’s divinity was homoousion, the same essence as the Father’s, and that it was neither created by nor ontologically subordinate to the Father’s divinity – in response to which Arius accused the Council of teaching Sabellianism. The Council decreed that Bishop Arius was a heretic and, in what we now call the Nicene Creed, set forth the orthodox doctrine that was binding on the entire Church. For more about this (and related issues), read my most recent book We Believe: A Commentary on the Nicene-Constatninopolitan Creed of 381 A.D. (http://www.amazon.com/We-Believe-Commentary-Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Creed/dp/1630001309).

 

At the start of this article, I quoted a passage each from the Apostle Paul’s two letters to Timothy. Maybe as you’ve been reading you’ve been wondering what those two passages have to do with the article. It’s simple, really: many Christians take those passages and misuse them to communicate the Christian version of “it’s just semantics.” They misuse these passages to dismiss what someone is saying (and, by extension, dismiss the person). But let’s look at these passages a bit more closely.

 

“… He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” – 1 Timothy 6:4-5 (ESV)

 

“He” refers back to anyone [who] teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3 ESV). Paul wrote that such a person “is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:4a ESV). I agree with Adam Clarke in his Commentary on the Bible that such a person “is blown up, or inflated with a vain opinion of his own knowledge; whereas his knowledge is foolishness, for he knows nothing,” and that he (or she) “is sick, distempered, about these questions relative to the Mosaic law and the traditions of the elders; for it is most evident that the apostle has the Judaizing teachers in view, who were ever, in questions of theology, straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel.”

 

Those who misuse this passage tend to focus on the phrase quarrels about words,” which is their way of saying “it’s just semantics” while trying to make themselves sound spiritual. Paul used the Greek word logomachia, which means to contend about words or to wrangle about empty and trifling matters – essentially, splitting hairs. The example I used earlier about Bishop Arius and the Council of Nicea might, on the surface, seem like “quarrels about words,” but while the two words used were separated by a single Greek letter, the doctrines they communicated were widely divergent.

 

Let me offer another example: I’ve sometimes objected to fellow Christians using the phrases “accept Jesus” or “accepting Christ” (or variants of these) and suggested using receive instead. Some have responded by saying that accept and receive are synonymous because receive is often used in the definition of accept (e.g. to receive something that is offered). However, accept also has a connotation of something that a superior does to an inferior and of being in a position where we have the right to refuse. This – coupled with the fact that scripture never says that humans accept God or Christ (though it does refer to God accepting, in the sense of approving, certain humans, e.g. Acts 10:34-35) – is the basis for my objection to the phrases “accept Jesus” and “accepting Christ” (or variations of these involving forms of the verb accept). Further, receive is the language that scripture uses. For example, in John 1:12-13 (ESV), “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” – the Greek word for receive being suggestive of taking.

 

Is it “just semantics” or “quarrels about words”? I don’t think so: it goes to the very core of what a person believes about the sinner’s standing before Christ. Does the hell-bound sinner have the right to refuse Christ (which is what the notion of “accepting Christ” suggests)? That God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30 ESV) makes it clear that there is no right to refuse.

 

“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” – 2 Timothy 2:14 (ESV)

 

As I mentioned regarding 1 Timothy 6:4-5, those who misuse this passage tend to focus on the phrase quarrel about words,” which is their way of saying “it’s just semantics” while trying to make themselves sound spiritual. The Greek word that Paul used here was one that he appears to have coined from logomachia and that has a similar meaning. About this, John Gill commented in his Exposition of the Entire Bible “it became them to strive and contend for the form of sound words, for the wholesome words or doctrines of our Lord Jesus, but not about mere words.”

 

Adam Clarke wrote in his Commentary on the Bible, “Words, not things, have been a most fruitful source of contention in the Christian world; and among religious people, the principal cause of animosity has arisen from the different manner of apprehending the same term, while, in essence, both meant the same thing.” (I would suggest that the fifth century dispute between Cyril and Nestorius was very largely of this nature). Clarke warned, “All preachers and divines should be very careful, both in speaking and writing, to explain the terms they use, and never employ them in any sense but that in which they have explained them.” (The word divines means clerics or theologians).

 

Words mean things. Sometimes the difference between words may seem insignificant to the ignorant (those lacking knowledge), but Christian history has shown that sometimes such seemingly insignificant differences – like the single Greek iota separating two terms used at the Council of Nicea – are the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, between Christian and not Christian.

 

One more example: as someone whose native language is American English, I understand sister to mean a female sibling, someone who has at least one parent that is also your parent. Here in Kazakhstan, where I presently live and work, sister can also include a female cousin. I learned this in a classroom discussion with one of my students. She kept referring to her sister, but the details of what she was saying made her use of sister seem strange to me (e.g. her “sister” had a different set of parents and was coming to live with her). After some back-and-forth discussion, I was able to determine that she was referring to her cousin. Is this sister-cousin thing “just semantics”? Certainly not! On the contrary, it shows the importance of using words accurately and shows that sometimes there isn’t an exact correspondence between a word in one language and its equivalent in another.

 

The accurate use of mutually-understood words is essential for clear communication. So, don’t be so quick to dismiss something as “just semantics,” especially if you’re just trying to be dismissive of what the other person is saying because you don’t have a rational response. Wishing that someone would suffer the same fate as others have suffered isn’t the same as threatening that person with such suffering, and the difference isn’t minor. Consequences aren’t the same as punishment (though there are some parents who seem to think the two terms are synonymous). Classroom management is not discipline (worth reading: http://teachers.net/wong/OCT05/).

 

It’s just semantics! Oh, really? No, not really.

 

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