Why Words Are Powerful And Why They Matter

We have all heard the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Is this phrase true, that words are powerless? I am sorry but this phrase is not true.  In fact, I believe it is the exact opposite.  Words are powerful. They communicate; they deliver information, express feelings, inspire others, give guiding protection, teach, and so forth. It is amazing that “mere puffs of wind should allow men to discover what they think and feel, to share their attitudes and plans, to anticipate the future and learn from the past, and to create lasting works of art.”[1]
Indeed words are not mere puffs of wind or sheer sounds with vacuous meaning, but rather they exercise a wholesome power over our souls, not to control and coerce but to form and to teach, to bring our lives to the point where we may speak the truth and thereby engage in the work of thought. And if our souls are shaped by words, then words can give adequate expression to what is in them. Indeed, words are just the thing we need to be human, creatures made in the image of God who speaks the truth.[2]
This wholesome power of external words is especially realized with respect to the Word of God, for God’s Word “is not a unidimensional, flat, interior, intellectual word. It is a dynamic, eventful Word that goes forth from God into the real world with powerful effects.”[3] God’s word is effectual; God’s Word makes all things out of nothing; the Word is alive and active.[4] The Word of God is “energized by the Holy Spirit.”[5] Yes indeed, “all words are eventful, only the Word of God is fully creative and powerful. The Word of God is theologically eventful because in it God is a work doing what only He can do.”[6]

Besides giving shape and meaning, words also express a person’s reason within a specific cultural context. They express truth claims and are manifested signs of people exercising their own reason.[7] Thus, words communicate more than descriptive information, they are declarative. Robert Sokolowski comments on the declarative use of speech saying,
it captures and expresses me, the rational agent, right in the actual exercise of my reason. It is time-specific and indexical. It is a kind of pinnacle in the manifestation of the person, the person at work here and now. It exhibits me exercising my power to be truthful. . . . Declarative speech gives us the primary intuition of the personal in its actual presence, the rational in its actual exercise, and the original distinction of the person from his context.[8]
As stated by Sokolowski, words are manifestations of a person’s reason. Reason though, is embedded in a particular worldview and sourced from particular epistemological sources. So words are not independent or autonomous, but have layers of depth behind them and in them. For example, the Word of God is not only effectual, but it also supplies meaning to the Christian’s use and implementation of words. Otherwise stated, Biblical words are encoded with meaning. Both the origin of Biblical words and the meaning attached to these words are derived from the Scriptures, accordingly forming the Christian’s Biblical semantic package. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, through the Word, converts the Christian’s syntax by training him how to talk about God, himself, and his neighbor.[9]

All of this is important to understand because if a person’s epistemological source changes or slightly yields to a different epistemological sources, the person’s epistemic assumptions will change as well, and thus altering the framework in which language manifests itself from. Otherwise specified, encroaching foreign epistemological sources will impact the semantics of words, which then impacts the syntax of sentences, which then impacts the meaning of sentences, and so forth.

Different worldviews and epistemological frameworks are also important to note in respect to receiving and interpreting words. As already stated, both the origin of Biblical words and the meaning attached to these words are derived from the Scriptures, accordingly forming a person’s Biblical semantic package. However, a person who adheres or gives way to non-Biblical epistemological sources will advertently/inadvertently use un-Biblical semantic assumptions to decode Biblical words, hence yielding/interpreting different word meanings. Otherwise stated, these different semantic presuppositions will in essence change the meaning of a received Biblical message by recoding various Biblical words with the listener’s own meanings. This semantic reconfiguration has far reaching implications into the realms of syntax, sentence meaning, and so forth.[10]

Besides semantic reconfiguration, the message of the Bible may also be susceptible to inferences that come about due to a hearer’s supplemental context. Hearers have networks of information, backgrounds of information, and specific contexts of time and place that they utilize in understanding incoming messages from others.[11]  Rather than interpreting a Biblical message according to its own semantics, syntax, time, place, and context, a person may regrettably absorb the Biblical message into their own context (i.e., what does this text mean to me rather than what is this text saying), which will result in a change of the original meaning of the message, which then leads the person to “infer something neither explicitly stated nor necessarily implied.”[12]

Indeed words are powerful and they certainly do matter!

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, “First Language,” Theology Today 42 (July 1985): 221.
[2] Phillip Cary, Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), xii.
[3] Jacob A. O. Preus, Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 17.
[4] See Romans 10:17 and Hebrews 4:12.
[5] Preus, Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel, 18.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Robert Sokolowski, Phenomenology of the Human Person (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 13.
[8] Ibid, 15.
[9] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms As Tools For Prayer (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989), 42-43.
[10] John Searle: Philosophy of Language: Lecture 6,” [n.d.], video clip, accessed July 14, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbwAzu8k76c.
[11] Ibid.
[12] W.F. Brewer, “Memory for the Pragmatic Implications of Sentences,” Memory and Cognition 27 (1977): 673.

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