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The Power and Authority of Words

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In the New Testament, the Greek word for "authority" is sometimes translated as "power." Even though there is a separate Greek word for power, the concepts of power and authority are so intimately connected in the Western mind, that modern translators often view them as synonyms. But translations aside, there is a biblical distinction that should be made between authority and power.

We discussed previously the relationship between author and authority, where an author has "authority" because he is the originator, the creator. Authority, in the biblical sense, is usually referring to the legitimacy of the individual or individuals. For example, when Jesus finished his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records that "the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7:28-29). In other words, the crowds recognized something different in the words of Jesus that was lacking in the words of their own teachers. The scribes had the "power" of the Scriptures, but lacked the ability—the legitimacy—to speak them with any authority. When Jesus, the author and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2) spoke however, he spoke with authority because he was the author; he had legitimate claim to the power AND authority of the Scriptures.

You've heard it said that "knowledge is power." And while this is true, we must not forget that knowledge exists only in words. In reality, words are the real power of the created world. Meaning is infused into words by an authority. French artist Marcel Duchamp despised language because he understood that it pointed to a transcendent Message-sender. Duchamp set out to create his own language, free of any meaning and authority. When he realized that by creating his own language, Duchamp had merely replaced God with himself, he destroyed his work. Language—any language—is authoritarian by its very nature. The creator of the language must give meaning to his "words" in order to communicate. Without meaning, communicating is impossible. Duchamp learned the lesson of the Tower of Babel too late. Words have power because they come from an authority.

This is why one of the first actions of any regime seeking to subvert the current authority will always involve language. Redefining words, creating new ones, controlling the media, and restricting access to alternate viewpoints must take place before any coup can be successful. In "The Principles of Newspeak," an appendix to George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, we are told:

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism...The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression  to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [1]

Orwell understood the power of words. Control the language; control the people. Notice that Orwell understood that even Newspeak was limited in that it was only effective "at least so far as thought is dependent on words." Even though this is theoretically true, how many of us actually think in anything other than words. We primarily think and reason conceptually, not pictorially.

Words are important to God as well. He gave us his word—the Bible—and he gave the Word—Jesus Christ. He made words the focus of two of his ten commandments: the third and the ninth. In the third commandment, we are told to not take his name in vain, referring primarily to vows and oaths. In the ninth, we are told to not bear false witness against our neighbor, a reference to being truthful and providing trustworthy testimony. God expects his people to be truthful, to be without reproach in what we say and do. This idea is repeated over and over throughout the entire Bible and when we get to the New Testament we find an interesting application of this concept.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes an observation regarding the third commandment. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." Paul and James both repeat similar admonitions in their letters (2 Corinthians 1:17-20; James 5:12). Commentaries on these passages refer to the historical tradition of the first century Jews to make any and all sorts of vows and oaths against sacred objects, in order to give their promises validity (i.e. authority). Stated another way, they had gotten to the point where their words were no longer trustworthy; their words no longer carried any power because their authority of being truthful people—ones that obeyed God's third and ninth commandments—had been corrupted. There is no honor among thieves or liars...

[1]  George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1983 [1949]), 246

Article posted June 4, 2009


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