Our Language Taught Us to Misinterpret the Bible: How English is a Theological Language

One thing that post-Enlightenment Christianity has tried to defend is the idea that it is possible to come to a perfect understanding of the Bible, and thus God and theology. In many ways, this view has led to a plethora of issues that we face in western culture today as we, as a culture, often believe we are doing things the “correct” way. However, the unfortunate truth is, due to linguistics and linguistic psychology, it is virtually impossible for English-speaking Westerners to understand biblical concepts in their original meanings.

The thing about English is that is has grown and changed quite a bit over time. Most of us cannot read Old English and much of our grammar and word usage no longer resembles its origins. However, one thing that is rarely taken into account when looking at the development of English is the fact that is has been influenced through Christian theology.

For instance, the word “sodomy” has the English meaning of “anal or oral copulation with another person” according to Merriam-Webster and has both common and legal uses.

However, the term sodomy comes from the perceived theological understanding that the “sin of Sodom” has to do with some form of taboo sexual behavior, especially homosexuality. This theological understanding undermines the fact that Ezekiel 16:49 claims Sodom’s sin was connected to their treatment of the poor in favor of Jude’s reference to desiring “other bodies” (often used to say homosexuality when in reality “other bodies” would apply to divine beings more than a person of the same gender).

The term “sodomy” is probably one of the easiest terms to identify a theological basis in the English language. Regardless of what a person believes the “sin of Sodom” actually was, the standardization of the English use to the point of its usage in legislature is a reflection of the theological influence on our language.

However, theology has shaped more than words derived from biblical references. Words like “sin” and “salvation” also carry their theological influence into our modern understanding of the words.

“Sin” originated with the Latin word “sons,” meaning “guilty,” and became “synn” in Old English, specifically meaning “an offense against religious or moral law” before the 12th century.

In many ways, there is nothing wrong with that understanding of the word “sin,” except for the fact that we universally use it for the Greek word “ἁμάρτημα” (hamartemo) and the words derived from this root.

This is an issue because the Greek understanding of ἁμάρτημα does not reflect our understanding of a violation of moral/religious law or guilt. In fact, ἁμάρτημα reflects a failure of some kind (sometimes a failure by someone else that leads to consequences for a person) that leads to tragedy. This can include a morally positive act, such as saving a life, that leads to tragedy later.

With this in mind, when the New Testament writers talk about ἁμάρτημα, they are referring to the Greek understanding, which does not necessarily denote a moral failure or violation of religious law, but the cause that leads to tragedy.

Unfortunately, those of us who were given English as our first language are left with interpreting moral failure into the Greek text. This is ultimately a modern theological understanding that is being forced onto an ancient text.

This means that we cannot read the Bible without reading our cultural understanding of “sin” into the text, even though it does not hold the same definition. Our language has literally taught us to misinterpret the Bible.

The same is true with the word “salvation.” Because of its use in theological discussion, we understand salvation to mean the process in which someone gains access to heaven instead of hell. However, the biblical word “σωτηρία” (soteria) denotes a physical rescue, similar to the way we use “liberation.” This means we read an eternal understanding into σωτηρία when its first century meaning was temporal.

One thing that makes all of this worse is the fact that language affects our psychology and influences the way that we understand the world. Because English has been influenced by Christian theology, the language that we use to understand the world in which we exist is fundamentally shaped by theology.

The ways that we view right and wrong (and the fact that we see it as a binary), liberation in this life, gender roles, and relationship expectations are all shaped by the language we are given, which is a Christian language.

We may not be able to escape this fact, but we can acknowledge it and take steps to move past it.

The first step is realizing that all language is incapable of conveying perfect communication. All language is filtered through the sender and interpreted by the receiver, which means all communication requires interpretation.

Thus, we will never have perfect understanding of anything because our language is both limiting and influencing. Giving permission to be wrong, or specifically knowing that will always be wrong in some way, opens ourselves up to the possibility that we could learn something new and connect with others and the world in new way.

If certainty in an understanding that was flawed from the beginning is how we got to where we are, the only way to counter that is to open ourselves to possibility. The possibility that there is more than we do understand and could understand.

Kalie May Hargrove