The speaker is the master but words, nonetheless, mean specific things

Words have specific meanings. Granted, the meaning of words may change over time. But it is certainly true that at any given point in time, words are generally understood to mean something specific in the context in which they are used.

Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Do words means whatever we want them to mean? Lewis Wolpert certainly thought so when he had this discussion with William Lane Craig:

But does Humpty Dumpty have a point? Words do mean, in the context they are used, whatever is meant by the speaker. Evangelicals have long taken the view that, to understand the Biblical writers, we have to understand the words they use as they intended them to be understood.

To take a famous example, Paul and James use the word ‘justified’ to mean different things. Both use the same word but both intend to convey a slightly different point. The word, in the context, does mean what the writer intended it to mean. To deny this is to run into the kinds of translation problems that ensue when people insist a specific word only ever means one thing all the time in all contexts.

The counter to this is to note that words have a lexical range. One word can have more than one meaning and we discern it primarily by context. But a lexical range does not quite mean words mean whatever I want them to mean. When I say cow, whilst I may mean dog, because that is not within the lexical range of that word, I am misusing that word. Whilst the meaning of any specific word has a lexical range, and in the context is intended to mean the specific thing the writer wants, the writer cannot (or, at least, won’t) convey meaning by using a word that is not within the lexical range of that word.

The whole point of words is to convey meaning. Whilst the intent of the speaker – presuming the speaker is being honest – is the arbiter of meaning, they will in no way convey their meaning if they use entirely inappropriate words. The problem was that, like Lewis Wolpert, Humpty Dumpty was using words in a way that most people don’t understand them and so Alice didn’t understand what he was going on about and it requires a mind like Dr Craig to decipher what is really meant by the words being used.

The fact is that ‘computer’ does not mean ‘God’. Neither word is within the lexical range of the other. But when Lewis Wolpert used the word ‘computer’, it was apparent what he actually meant was ‘God’ because that was what he was describing. His meaning in using the word ‘computer’ – which was entirely his to mean – was what we usually mean by the word ‘God’.

The point here is that words, which have an objective meaning, are not the same thing as what we intend to mean when we use them. Humpty Dumpty’s meaning was whatever he intended it to be, but the words did not mean whatever he intended them to mean. Words have specific meanings and we can either use them rightly or wrongly. Authorial intent is not quite the same thing as words mean whatever I want them to mean.

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, this is important. Our main task is to understand authorial intent – we want to know what the author meant when he wrote the words he chose to use. The task of Biblical interpretation is all but impossible if words mean whatever the author intends them to mean (which is to essentially say they could mean anything). There would be no way of knowing what any of the Biblical writers were saying. But if words have objective meanings, even though they have a lexical range, they mean something specific and are capable of conveying that meaning accurately to the reader in their particular context.

This is also important as we engage in all sorts of discussions. Very often, we will find people using the same words as us but meaning utterly different things by them. Catholics and Protestants will both reference grace, for example, but we tend to mean quite different things by the word. Much discussion falters because we fail to recognise that many people use words in ways that they don’t really mean. We can find ourselves locked into discussions that seem to go round in circles because we are ultimately talking about two different things. By contrast, we can find ourselves using different words to mean the very same thing but end up arguing about terminology rather than addressing the issue at hand.

Though words mean specific things, sometimes people use them to mean whatever the intend them to mean. We need to be careful the words we use convey what we actually mean and we likewise need to be aware that often the words others use aren’t always what they mean at all.