Dictionaries are good and useful things. They help us understand our language and those who practice it. Unfortunately, a dictionary cannot tell us what a particular writer or speaker means when he uses a particular word. Many words have shades of meaning and some have multiple, unrelated meanings which can cause confusion and misunderstanding. As readers and listeners, it is our primary task to try to understand what a writer or speaker means, not what it means to us.
This is generally easier with speakers because we can ask them clarifying questions. Writers, however, can be miles or millennia removed from us. To understand how a writer understands a word, we often have to look at context. We must take tentative guesses at the meaning and hold them up to the rest of the writing. Does our hypothetical meaning fit with the other things we understand?
Doing this takes patience and discernment instead of lazily assuming we know an unfamiliar word in a sentence based on context of that sentence alone. This takes reading and rereading and then reading other people’s attempts at interpretation, if there are any. We should look at how other writers of the time used the word, if possible, and how those who came after used the word, especially if the writer had students or disciples. If the writer was a student of someone else, we should study how that person understood the word.
Thankfully, we do not have to put forth this much effort in order to understand the vast majority of words. We may realize that we don’t understand a word only after reading the author for a time or after encountering another’s different interpretation. All of this requires a certain degree of humility.
Readers of past posts know that I am passionate about words. Meaning is crucial because without shared meaning, there is no communication and we are left isolated in our own interpretive sphere, not knowing if our view through it to the outside world is accurate or distorted.
A word I have recently been reconsidering in the manner described above is faith. Two different dictionaries lead with significantly different definitions.
Faith n. Unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence.
Webster’s New World Dictionary: Third College Edition
Faith n. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
The first makes faith irrational while the second does not. I cannot help but believe that the tone of the definitions is colored by the editor’s biases. Faith is a highly charged word even among those who “hold” it, “espouse” it, or “practice” it. The church fractured in the 16th century ultimately because Martin Luther understood what the Apostle Paul meant by faith differently than the church had for its history up to that point.
Luther’s understanding put him at odds not only with the church, but with the author of the Epistle of James. It is no secret that Luther had issues with James (as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation.) It is worth considering that if Luther’s understanding of faith (and justification) caused him to question four New Testament epistles, perhaps he should have questioned his own definition.