Language is a Tougher Hurdle Than I Thought… and I’m Talking about English!

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this instance, does our worldview affect the way we speak, or does the way we speak affect our worldview?

I’ve been reading the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards & O’Brien, which is a book both Nick & I definitely recommend reading. Before reading this book, it was already pretty clear to me how our worldview can affect our language, but it wasn’t until after I read the third chapter of this book that I realized how much the vice versa is also true.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast
— Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

When studying Biblical Greek in college, my professor had our class look closely at Ephesians 2:8-9 to find the meaning. By what means exactly are we saved: faith or grace? After some deduction, we concluded that both the words “grace” and “faith” are feminine in gender while the word “this” is neuter (gender neutral). Therefore, “this” is a concept that encompasses the whole idea of grace and faith, and it is together they save us.

However, upon some reflection, I now realize how limited my study was (and probably still is) and how much my approach revealed about me.

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The fact that our Greek class was even driven to find the pronoun to which the antecedent words “grace” and “faith” were connected came from our American mindset that we must define a subject for everything! The English language is very much reliant on an active tone of voice that has a clear (or at least implied) subject for each verb. Many other cultures, however, often leave out subjects in their language. Sometimes it is just understood, or better yet, sometimes things just exist on their own without someone or something causing it. For example, “It” doesn’t have to be raining. In other parts of the world they could say, “happening rain”. But for me, as an American, I find comfort in precise, direct answers in communication. So while my interpretation of Ephesians 2 might not have been wrong, it was definitely incomplete.

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Looking further into the Ephesians passage, it has been founded that often times when the words “grace” and “faith” were used together in the Bible, it denoted a relationship of patron and client. In many cultures in the world, including some of the Biblical ones, the poor aren’t expected to just figure things out on their own. Instead, they often rely on someone who has resources and power (the patron) to take care of things for them. In exchange, the poor (the client) are to show their loyalty to their patron with acts of service and public displays of gratitude. Perhaps Paul is trying to convey the type of relationship we have with Christ. Since we are helpless without Him, Jesus gave us the ultimate gift (grace), and we in return are to show our discipleship (faith) and boast about Him.

This concept is easily missed by us first-world Americans, and I bet it’s not just because we aren’t aware of the ancient language usage of “faith” and “grace”. Culturally, we are also inexperienced when it comes to dependent relationships. We live in a country where we are expected to be self-reliant and earn everything. This can make the idea of Jesus’ grace very hard to accept, which I expect to be true of Japanese people as well.

As we look forward to sharing the Gospel with a foreign people in a foreign language, it is important to be aware of the way their culture affects the way they read and hear The Word. However, it is even more crucial to be aware of how we’ve let our own culture and language filter Scripture. Are we forcing our Western views of Biblical interpretation and discipleship on others just because we assume it’s the correct way?

I admit that I don’t really have any solid answers to these questions, and I don’t have a mind-blowing conclusion to this post either. This has simply been a good topic for me to reflect on (I also find it fun since I enjoy language). The one thing I do know is that I will always have to rely on the Spirit of Truth that transcends all time, language and culture.

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