Christians aren’t supposed to cuss, you have probably been told or even think. Good Christians don’t say things that offend others but only be nice. We might quote Paul in Colossians 3:8 or Ephesians 4:29 or Ephesians 5:4 as a moratorium on all cussing or thinks that hurt other people’s feelings. Ther is some mistake notions behind this. Firstly, rather than having taboo language that we don’t use, Paul is focused on the ways we use language to abuse or portray coarse scenes. Rather than the penchant to think that only kind and edifying language is initially beautiful to the ears, Paul is concerned about the way we talk to others being used for their benefit; this can entail an honesty. But there is a difference between speaking honestly and berating, as the former brings problems to the surface, focused on actions, with a flexibility about why people are acting as they do whereas the latter pigeonholes and labels people in a people that they do not have the freedom in your speech to be different.
However, despite some of the superficial expectations we have about our speech as Christians, there is some substance behind it all. Being Christian entails a transformation of our speech in terms of how we use our words. Our words are important. Far from “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” words can tear people’s hearts and souls; but they can also restore. Beyond that, however, speech helps us as groups of people to make sense of the world; how we label events, such as if we see God’s actions behind events or not, impacts how we interpret the world and influence how other people interpret. Thus, Christian speech has its own culture from the speech of others cultures, where we help to make sense and label the work of God and help to bring people to a rightly understood place through our speech.
This is the focus on Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33-37:
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your wordsyou will be condemned.
Jesus says this after warning the Pharisees about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit after they had said that Jesus was, essentially, demon possessed and that was the source of his wonders. Two things were operating here in their speech. Firstly, they were blaspheming Christ, a person who was right in front of them. This would be abusive speech that denigrates Jesus with lies and could be used to justify all sorts of evil against him. But Jesus said that there will be forgiveness for this. But then, they were also blaspheming the Holy Spirit, because they were labeling the work of the Spirit as the work of the devil. Their hermeneutical capacity had them interpreting the work of God as the very opposite, the work of Satan. This echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah in 5:20:
Ah, you who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light,
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet,
and sweet for bitter.
Therefore, at stake here in Jesus statements about being justified by words is that the way words are used towards people and used to understand, including understanding the work of God, reveals what is in people’s hearts.
But the issue isn’t merely about what words we use, but it entails a transformation of how we understand and use language also. Karl Barth recognized this. Karl Hunsinger states about Barth’s theology of words:
The particularities of the biblical witness, Barth was convinced, are utterly singular in their content. Ordinary words as they are generally used are profoundly inadequate when it comes to speaking of God. Consequently it would be fatal, were we to assume that we know in advance what words like “love,” “person,” “father,” and “lord” mean in a theological setting. We must rather let ourselves be told what these words mean by attending to the particularity of their scriptural usage. Only by meditating on the deeper patterns of the biblical witness, and in particular on patterns of divine activity to which it attests, can we begin to understand the theological semantics of these terms. Only then will we see, for example, that God’s “loving” is uniquely concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake, that God’s “personhood” involves a perfect coincidence, or coincidence without discrepancy, between being and act, that God’s “fatherhood” is a relationship of creative self-giving, and that God’s “lordship” comes to its fullest expression in servanthood. Only by fixing our gaze strictly on God’s unique activity, not allowing ourselves to he influenced unduly by ideas derived from elsewhere, will these matters come clearly into view. Only by breaking up and reforming our ordinary conceptions will we be able to do justice to these particularities. Only by conforming our ideas to the subject matter (rather than the other way around), regardless of how strange that subject matter might be, will we truly learn to think theologically.
Put simply, the very meaning of words changed. The meanings of words shifted based upon what we know about God. So when we as Christians talk about love, we don’t mean what the world means necessarily, but we mean what we see of the love in Jesus Christ. Or, Lordship is not understood against the backdrop of top-down political power like the Roman Caesar, but in the way that Jesus leads His people. Definitions of many words are different in Christian contexts.
But, one could take this to an absurd direction to suggest that words are totally different within a Christian culture from other cultures. But this isn’t the case. There is generally some similarities between how Christians immersed in the Scriptures would talk about love and how wider societies would talk about love. What is different however is what is known in cognitive science and cognitive linguistics as the prototype(s) we have for words.
While I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of prototype theory, in part because I am not an expert and in part because it can be needlessly tedious, (but this Wikipedia article has a good summary) it is a theory from Eleanor Rosch where our understanding of categories and concepts derives from a specific image that has various features, but not all features have to be present for that category or concept to be valid. To make it a bit more concrete, one person’s image of love may include things such as being liked, kind words, generous actions, and spending time, but they may say someone loves them who is kind and generous and can’t spend time with them. However, the more and more features are absent, the harder it is to say something is love; for instance, someone may not consider something love is the other person only likes them but doesn’t have kindness, generosity or spend time with them.
Therefore, as our words are defined by prototypes, such as God or our parents as prototypes of love, there is a) a different set of features b) of which only some features have to be present. What features define our concepts/words and how strict or loose we are with how many features much be present impacts how we interpret the world and how we relate to one another. For instance, someone who considers that a work of God must be scientifically inexplicable entails a very strict set of definitions bound to a modernist prototypes of science and the world, whereas a looser definition may allow for God’s work to incorporate events that scientific explanation is plausible. Or, in regards to the way we treat others, a person who has a strict view of love may excoriate someone as harsh for a single transgression whereas a person who has a looser view of love may be merciful for a transgression.
How does this extend to the nature of Christian language speech? Because what happens in the Christian community is two things. Firstly, there is a “reprototyping” of our language based upon what we know of God. Rather than defining love in a familial or tribal sense, love for Christians is defined by God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 2:13, where the words he uses are not being used in the same way that the surrounding (Stoic) wisdom used words but in a different way based upon the inspiration of the Spirit.
Secondly, how strict or loose we are with our definitions is largely determined by the strength of our desires and expectations. Demanding persons expect (near) perfect adherence to their expectations, whereas less demanding people can be satisfied with less. But when our desires are transformed in Christ through the Spirit, this means what we are stricter about and what we are looser about changes. This impacts how strictly or loosely we apply our concepts, so that a forgiving person may still express the possibility and reality of goodness in people who commit bad actions but a demanding person may expect perfection to call something good. Or, in reverse, demanding people may readily throw out negative labels readily, using the words in the loosest of fashions, whereas a forgiving person may demand much stricter uses of negative labels. For instance, demanding people may call another person “crazy” or a “trouble-maker” in cases of a little bit of frustration, whereas a forgiving person may have stricter definitions for problematizing and negative psychologizing language, reserving it only after a long, persistent pattern has developed.
In summary, when we are transformed by Christ, the way we use language changes by a) giving us new, conceptual prototypes that determines how we are to make sense of God, other people, and the world and b) transforming our desires which impacts how we use those words and concepts to make sense of God, other people, and the world. Thus, the way we use words reveals our hearts, and so we can be justified or condemned by our words.