I was thinking this morning that the most transformative moment in my understanding of meaning took place when I finally understood Wittgenstein, helped my my philosopher friend David Mossley in England. I continue to be amazed at even Bible scholars, people with PhDs in Old or New Testament, who don't get how meaning works. In my mind, it is so incontestable that to disagree with it means you don't understand it.
And it's very simple. "If a lion could speak, would we understand it?" There's the famous dictum in a nutshell. It's not enough to know the words someone is speaking. It's not enough simply to translate the Bible into English. If you do not know a lion's socio-cultural world, the world that gives us the "forms of life" of a lion. If you do not know the "language games" lions play with their words, then you won't understand the lion.
The bottom line is that you and I can read the word "sacrifice" in the Bible, but few of us will understand it, because we don't have a form of life in our world where they offer sacrifices as they did in the Ancient Near East. Meaning is always now.
That means that meaning changes. I was reminded last week of how the meaning of the phrase "social justice" has changed in the last ten years. Last week, some professors debated whether this phrase was appropriate at IWU. Of course that's Glenn Beck's fault a few years back. Anyone who thinks it isn't doesn't understand Wesleyan.
Before Glenn, the phrase social justice was standard lingo for the use of the word "justice" in the prophets of the Old Testament. It is an overwhelmingly biblical concept without variation throughout the biblical texts (which is saying something). We had an assignment on it first semester in the seminary, and it was a pretty boring assignment.
Then Beck told his audience that they should leave any church that used the phrase. He associated it with liberalism and it stuck. The phrase is the same. The background for the phrase is the same. But it now has a different meaning in a lot of circles. We may have to start using a different phrase because it may be ruined.
Meaning is a function of how words are used and the use of the phrase has changed in many places. That's why you can't judge meaning by current connotations. The Germans could translate the response to their demand for surrender at the Battle of the Bulge--"Nuts." But they didn't understand it because they didn't know the language game of the word in English.
It's not enough to know the English words of the Bible. Frankly, it's not enough to know the Greek and Hebrew behind the Bible. We will not understand the original Bible if we don't know the language games and forms of life in which those words were first written. And unfortunately, we will never have full access to that ancient world.
And the Spirit often speaks directly to us because those words can take on different nuances in our language games and our forms of life. We can hear God speak in new ways without even knowing they are new ways. But the "God said it, I believe it" mentality doesn't even know how different he or she is reading the Bible from what it meant to them even ten years ago.
It is usually completely unaware at the historical forces on its own interpretations.