The Power of Words

David J. Hesselgrave

Retired Professor of Mission, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, IL, USA

Published in Global Missiology, Featured Articles, January 2006,
Download PDF Version


“Powerful words” and “god terms”

The International Church Council Project  Western Hemisphere Consultation on Theology

The Formation and Faith of the Evangelical Missiological Society

A Verbally-Inspired Bible as “Yardstick” and “Tether” for EMS Dialogue

The Importance of Definitional Precision



Stuart Chase called it the “tyranny of words,”[i]  That is extreme.  But words are indeed powerful.  According to Chase, the mistranslation of one word may have occasioned the death of tens of thousands and changed the entire course of the twentieth century.  After constructing the atomic bomb, the Allies gave Japan a choice between surrender or mass devastation.  The key word in the Japanese response was mokusatsu, which had two possible meanings in context: “to refrain from comment” and “to ignore.”  With a view to buying time, Japanese officials intended the former meaning.  Translators, however, opted for the “ignore” meaning.[ii]  And, as they say, the rest is history.


“Powerful words” and “god terms”


Missionaries probably need little convincing on this point.  Many of there own accounts of foibles and even failures turn out to be linguistic faux pas—an erroneous word here, an embarrassing phrase there.  But beyond that, most missionaries will have encountered the often mysterious and always mistaken power of the shaman’s incantation or the mantra of some “holy man.”  In fact, some Buddhists say that the single sincere evocation of Amida Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu, by even the most “sinful” soul is quite sufficient for enlightenment and “eternal salvation.”


It may seem quite a stretch, but if the new rhetoricians are correct, all of us tend to “fall under the spell” of certain words that come to assume unusual significance in human discourse.  We might not be happy with their choice of terms, but they call them “god terms.”  “God terms” serve users by securing approval, setting directions or silencing debate quite apart from careful definition and serious reflection.  Examples in the discourse of contemporary politics and jurisprudence would be terms like “human rights,” “ethnic diversity,” “tolerance,” “freedom” and “democracy.”


The International Church Council Project
Western Hemisphere Consultation on Theology


It was my privilege last August 6-9 to be at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale for the launching of the International Church Council Project.  The Project is designed to encourage evangelical churches in some 70 targeted countries to maintain a theological standard consistent with historic evangelical theology.  The Project represents an extension of the earlier work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and is seeking to involve evangelical leaders on five continents over the next few years.


It was my attendant privilege in Ft. Lauderdale to share a room with another presenter, Josef Tson, the well-known evangelical leader from Romania.  As a young student in a Marxist state, Tson experienced a crisis of faith.  Then he met Richard Wurmbrand and heard his testimony of God’s faithfulness during years of imprisonment and torture.  Young Tson’s faith was renewed.  He eventually finished seminary and completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford.  As a leading evangelical pastor back in Romania he was forced to undergo months of interrogation and brainwashing, only to emerge the stronger and more steadfast for the experience. 


I mention all of this because persevering faith is as often—perhaps more often—born in the crucible of suffering than in converse of the classroom.  In Josef Tson’s case, seemingly endless hours spent with skeptical professors and thought police served to strengthen his resolve and reinforce his faith.   So when he first came across the ICBI’s Chicago statements on inerrancy and hermeneutics, he accepted them as they were.  Later on when he undertook the task of translating them into Romanian, however, he became aware of certain serious theological problems that attended semantic changes that had occurred in America during the 1960s and 70s.  Even seemingly small changes sometimes had “huge consequences.”[iii] 


For example, some new Bible translations had quietly replaced the word “bond-slave” with the word “servant.”  But in the New Testament one works as a slave (douleo) to God and serves (diaconeo) men.  Service to men can be done out of magnanimity or for profit.  But if we are believers we are owned by God and the situation is entirely different as Jesus teaches us in Luke 17:7-10.


This change was accompanied in the church by replacing the traditional term “surrender” with the word “commitment.”  That seems innocent enough, but “surrender” is a radical word.  In using it one lifts his or her hands and says, in effect, “Take over.  I’m yours.”  Citing Alan Bloom in his The Closing of the American Mind, Tson notes that “commitment” as it came to be used in the 1960s was a far weaker term.  It meant “engagement” and could be strong or weak but, in either case, it implied that the one who made the commitment was still in control.  That is hardly the case when surrender is involved! 


Except for saying that, to the degree that Josef Tson is correct, his analysis has profound significance for missions, I will let these matters rest there.  He is quite capable of making his own case.  For me it resurrected some history that is of signal importance to EMS members and, especially, its emerging leaders.


The Formation and Faith of the Evangelical Missiological Society


In the spring of 1988, Donald M. McGavran wrote to me as follows:


I want to lay before you, David, a very

                        very important item. . . .  I think that the evangelical

                        professors of missions need to establish a nationwide

                        organization called openly and courageously “The

                        American Society of Christian Missiology” . . . .

                        What is needed in North American and indeed around

                        the world is a society of missiology that says quite

                        frankly that the purpose of missiology is to carry out

                        the Great Commission.  Anything other than that may

                        be a good thing to do, but it is not missiology.[iv]


McGavran was, in effect, providing stipulated meanings of the crucial words “Christian” and “missiology.”  His proposal and meanings can be fully understood only in the light of his personal experience and the history of ecumenical missiological discussions leading up to 1988.  At any rate, his proposal played an important role in the formation of the Evangelical Missiological Society.  And subsequent history serves to demonstrate both the weaknesses and strengths that accrue to the adoption of that particular name rather than the name suggested by McGavran. 


On the negative side, “evangelicalism”—or, “evangelical ecumenism” as Richard V. Pierard terms its contemporary expression—has come to encompass so complex a sociological reality that the word is rapidly “losing its descriptive power.” [v]  Pierard says that evangelicalism has become “. . . a generic term for all kinds of Christian orthodoxy, and with the indigenization of mission activity operations, the multinational character of relief and evangelistic organizations, and the sending of missionaries by people in third world countries themselves, this broad evangelicalism [has become] a global phenomenon.”[vi]  I would add that, in consideration of the current controversies over open theism, conditional immortality, feminism and similar issues,  Pierard’s use of the term “Christian orthodoxy” itself becomes somewhat problematic.


Looking at the positive side, if we retrace the major steps in the development of the modern evangelical missions movement in North America as we know it we discover a certain strength not shared (to the same degree) by the Evangelical Theological Society, for example.  Whereas founders of the ETS based their organization on the single issue of the integrity and authority of Scripture, much earlier the founders of the IFMA and, later, those of the EFMA established their respective associations on a more comprehensive confessional basis.  The first article in both the IFMA and EFMA statements of faith did express unqualified belief in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible.  As expressed in the first article of the IFMA “Confession of Faith” it is as follows:


We believe that the Bible, consisting of the Old

            and New Testaments only, is verbally inspired

            by the Holy Spirit, is inerrant in the original

            manuscripts, and is the infallible and authoritative

            Word of God.[vii]           


But this was followed in the confessions of both organizations by articles dealing with cardinal doctrines that have characterized “Christian orthodoxy” from time immemorial.  Though these additional articles would have benefited by closer conformance to the language of certain historic creedal statements,[viii] they nevertheless have served the objectives of evangelical missions especially very well down through the years.

The fact that all members of the Evangelical Missiological Society subscribe to one or another of these confessional statements augurs well for the future of the Society in ways we do well to ponder.      


A Verbally-Inspired Bible as “Yardstick” and “Tether” for EMS Dialogue


Most of my readers will recognize these metaphors as being those of Charles Kraft.[ix]  I would add a qualification that emanates from the first article in the IFMA confession, however.  According to that article it is not simply “the Bible” or “Scripture” but also its verbal-plenary inspiration that is important here.  If the words and not just the ideas of the Bible are inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it follows that the relationship between the form of the biblical text and the meaning of the biblical text is much closer than some modern translations (and contextualizations) indicate.  The intended meaning of the Bible author is more likely supplied by a careful study of the text itself than by an application of the ingenuity and creativity of the translator.


Take a simple and, some would say, benign illustration.  Today’s English Version translators render the critical phrase “dikaiosune yar Theou en auto apokaluptetai” in Romans 1:17 as “For the gospel reveals how God puts people right with himself.”  English Standard Version translators stay closer to the structure of the original text and opt for “For in it [the gospel, ed.] the righteousness of God is revealed.”  For “today’s reader” the TEV does seem to be clearer and more “dynamic” at this point.


Turn, however, to 1 Corinthians 1:30 where Paul makes his powerful argument for the superiority of Christ over all human contrivances.  Closer to the original, the ESV reads “He [God, ed.] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”  Farther from the original but consistent with their translation of Romans 1:17, TEV translators render it as follows:  “But God has brought you into union with Christ Jesus, and God has made Christ Jesus to be our wisdom.  By him we are put right with God, we become God’s holy people and are set free.”


Admittedly, the TEV translation is both true and quite understandable.  But in ranging as far from the original as it does, the TEV fails to communicate the intended meaning of Paul.  Namely, that Christ himself  has been made, not only our wisdom, but also our righteousness, sanctification and redemption.  As it stands, the TEV translation does not encourage, let alone demand, serious study of these crucial words (ideas, concepts) and how it is that Christ actually becomes our righteousness, for example.  Standing alone, or in concert with similarly translated parallel texts, never in a million years would the TEV translation inspire an Edward Mote to write,


When he shall come with trumpet sound,

            O may I then in Him be found,

            Dressed in his righteousness alone,

            Faultless to stand before the throne.       


But my purpose here is not so much to argue for this or that particular translation.  Actually, I have two objectives.  First, I hope to demonstrate the fact that, though we might agree that the Bible is a “yardstick” and “tether,” that is not enough.  It is one’s view of the inspiration of the Bible that determines how rigorously the “yardstick” will be applied and also the “length of the tether.”  If the tether is too short, it is obvious that the intended meaning can be obscured by the linguistic “construction” of the original text.  But if the tether is too long meaning gets “run over” by cultural accoutrements as understood and applied by the modern translator.


My second objective is to remind EMS members that, evangelical missiologists cannot afford to leave these and related issues to translators alone.  If, as is often done, we do so, they may be decided on the wrong basis.  For example, left to a choice between static and dynamic equivalence, “dynamic equivalent translations” (and, consequently, “dynamic equivalent lifestyles” and “dynamic equivalence churches”!) can be expected to win out hands down.  Who, after all, wants static translations, contextualizations, lifestyles and churches?  Certainly no one I know of.  But the static option is a “straw option” and no option at all in this case.  Scripture itself is God’s Word and God’s Word is in and of itself, powerful and dynamic.  The primary question here has to do with whether or not the Bible is indeed “God’s Word” and, if so, in what sense.  Important but subsidiary questions have to do with where meaning is to be found, the relationship between form and function, the interanimation between meaning and impact, the translation process and so on.  Finally, whatever else might be said about a given translation it should be judged on the basis of a continuum ranging from “correct” to “incorrect” or from “good” to “bad,” not on bases having to do with creativity, feelings, “attention-getting” and so on.  Some of these questions are the special province of the experts to be sure, but at the proper place and time the larger issues should and can be discussed amicably and meaningfully by the entire membership because of the prior commitment to Scripture that all bring to the discussion.


The Importance of Definitional Precision


Future EMS writings and discussions would also be greatly enhanced by increased attention to the meanings of key words especially.  As compared to fifty years ago and even the late 1980s, the sheer volume of missiological materials has become almost mind-boggling.  Also, as Pierard indicates, “evangelicalism” is now comprised of a greater diversity of proposals and teachings, and is so ecclesiastically diverse and missionally encompassing, that definition of terms is more necessary than ever before.


I am thinking here primarily of certain words and phrases that have now assumed special importance in missiological materials and discussions such as “incarnation,”  “holism,” “missio Dei,” “kingdom,” “liberation,” “the poor,” “transformation,” and “paradigm” among others.  Call them “key terms,” “pet words,” or “in words” as you will.  That makes little difference.  The point is that they represent significant and, in some cases, revolutionary ideas and are widely used.  At the same time, they may be infused with very different meanings and yet, quite often, are undefined or ill defined.


Take the words “incarnation” and “incarnational,” for example.  “Incarnational missiology” may content itself with something as simple (yet important) as assuming the humble mind of a servant as did Christ.  But it may concern itself with taking Christ and his earthly mission (in preference to Paul and his mission to the Gentiles) as the model for our own.  The difference is significant.


Again, in some contexts “holism” or “holistic mission” means to be concerned for the whole person while at the same time giving priority to the eternal welfare of his or her immortal soul.   But in other contexts it means that no dichotomy between soul and body is allowable and ministry to the one is also ministry to the other.


Finally, used in the general sense of  “model” or “pattern,” the word “paradigm” can stand alone.  But when we speak of a “new,” “revolutionary” and “radical” paradigm, for example, to the extent that these adjectives apply it becomes important to know precisely what kind of paradigm is being proposed and how it has been derived.  Among many younger evangelicals especially the adjectives “new,” “revolutionary” and even “radical” can be expected to confer lend a certain luster to almost any paradigm.  But among all evangelicals, and especially in the context of the EMS and its confession of faith, it is important to be able to understand both the paradigm itself and the hermeneutical process in which it is developed.[x] 


Kevin Vanhoozer says that, at its best, evangelical theology is a matter of deliberating well (i.e., canonically) about the gospel in a non-canonical way (e.g., in terms of contemporary situations).[xi]  Could not the same be said concerning evangelical missiology—at its best?


End Notes

[i] Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954).

[ii] Ibid. 4-5.

[iii] Cf. Josef Tson, “The Christian World View,” paper delivered at ICCC conference, Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, August 6-9, 2003.

[iv] Donald McGavran, personal letter to David Hesselgrave, April 7, 1988.

[v] Richard V. Pierard, “Evangelicalism,” in New Twentieth Century Encyclopedica of Religious Knowledge,  sec. ed., J. D. Douglas, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1991) pp. 311-13.

[vi] Ibid. 313.

[vii] Cf. Edwin L. Frizen, Jr., 75 Years of IFMA 1917-1992.  (Pasadena:  William Carey, 1992), p. 435.

[viii] Cf. Frizen, ibid.,  and Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church.  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1960) passim

[ix] Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture:  A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective.  (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1979), p. 146 et passim.

[x] Cf, Charles Van Engen, “The Relation of Bible and Mission in Mission Theology.” In Charles Van Engen, Dean S. Gilliland and Paul Pierson, eds.  The Good News of the Kingdom:  Mission Theology for the Third Millennium.  (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1993) pp.35-36.

[xi] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Voice of the Actor:  A Dramatic Proposal About the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology.”  In John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed. Evangelical Futures:  a Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000), p. 84.