God did not write a dictionary.

The greatest story ever told. An instruction manual for human beings. God’s personal love letter. A guidebook for life’s journey.

The Bible gets described as many things, some much more accurately than others. But one thing it is definitely not, and yet Christians seem convinced it is, is a dictionary.

Frustratingly, but brilliantly, neither God nor the biblical authors, define their religious terms. At least, not in the way we’d like them to. Occasionally we stumble across phrases like, ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’, but these are more like poetic descriptions than a glossary of Christian jargon.

I thought maybe learning New Testament Greek would give me an insight into the precise definitions of the most debated words in the New Testament like porneia and arsenokoites, but alas, it turns out the best we can do is look at how other people used certain words around the same time, and perhaps dabble in etymology. Even rigorous lessons in dead languages can’t give us psychic abilities to gaze into the minds of the people and communities who penned our sacred texts.

That doesn’t stop us though. It doesn’t stop us declaring with a great air of authority how the Bible defines our favourite words. We’re just wrong. Here are three words that the Bible does not define:

1. Marriage. The words from Genesis that are so often considered an instant argument winner, ‘A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife’, might give us a little wisdom on in-laws and boundaries, but nothing like a definition of wife. In the course of the Bible’s narrative, we get a lot of examples of marriage, and other similar relationships. Many are polygamous (think Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David…) and there are plenty of concubines too. Most of these relationships are recounted without any moral judgement attached. Nowhere at all does the Bible come close to defining marriage, particularly not in the way that some Christians like to say it does, as one man and one woman making a public and exclusive lifelong contract with one another. 

2. Sexual immorality, or other translations of the Greek word porneia. Closely tied to marriage in the evangelical glossary, sex is apparently only ‘biblical’ and okay when between one man and one woman in a married relationship. Therefore sexual immorality must refer to any other kind of sex outside of those terms. Rather inconveniently though, neither that definition, nor any other, is ever mentioned in the Bible. Again, within the narrative, we have plenty of examples of immoral sex. Incest, adultery which leads to murder, and gang rape all feature in stories and get at least a passing frown of disapproval from the author in one way or another. But nowhere are the boundaries of sexual immorality defined.

3. God’s word. Aside from sex and relationships, there’s also the issue of the lack of definition that the Bible gives for itself. ‘The word of God is living and active’ is an often-quoted description, as is ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and useful…’. But nowhere are we told exactly what counts as Scripture (or what we’re to make of those troublesome books that some of us quietly ditched in the 16th century) or given a definition of it as ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’. A bigger spanner in the works is the fact that logos is just as likely to be used for a particular message from God, or his general communication, or the Greek concept of God’s reason and thought, or most significantly, for Jesus. We do the term a great disservice when we confine it to meaning those 66 books.

Those are just three of the most obvious. What other concepts do we imagine to be clearly defined by the Bible when in fact they’re clearly not?

For me, there are so many wider questions about the limitations of language to communicate precisely, because whatever definitions we do use can only be given in more undefined words. The more I think about it the more my head begins to hurt.

Simply though, I think the realisation that God didn’t write us a dictionary calls us to humility in our reading of the Bible. It calls us to accept that we don’t always know what a word meant in one context, to one person, or even in the in-jokes and sayings of a community. It calls us to be a little flexible in applying the Bible to our own contexts, recognising the fluidity of the significance of words across time and culture. It calls us to use our own creativity and imagination too. When we talk about relationships, about faith, about God, there’s no need for our first instinct to be to surround our terms with a rigid fence.

If God didn’t feel the need to write us a dictionary, it’s probably best that we don’t try to either. Some things are just too big, or too baffling, or too beautiful for definitions. Thank God for that.

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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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4 Responses to God did not write a dictionary.

  1. asgrey89 says:

    So true. Btw, in my experience, that “biblical” definition of marriage also includes “for the purpose of procreation”. (Never mind that this wasn’t actually stipulated ’til Cranmer’s Prayer Book was published in 1552!).

  2. Attempting to attach rigid rules and definitions to various Biblical words and phrases brings out the “letter of the law” in us. Funny about that aspect of living, those who decide what the letter of the law means get to define it for everyone else. I live in the confidence that we have God’s Holy Spirit within us to help us pray, remind us of Jesus’ words and bring us comfort and peace. I guess that means we can leave those pesky definitions to others.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  3. Peter Hardy says:

    It’s great that you’re highlighting the critical issue that there aren’t definitions there. But I strongly disagree with the idea that it’s for the best that some theological terms aren’t defined and that we should not try to pin them down. To be charitable to your piece, however, from the context of your prior paragraph perhaps by this you were only referring to defensively rigid definitions insensitive to depth and social change? But to resign ourselves to the indefinability of important terms would be to abandon theology as a rational endeavour.

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