Have you ever noticed that when you learn a new word, for a short ensuing period the word then seems omnipresent?
A sensible soul would likely conclude that the presence of the word in their experience is not new, but rather the super-ego has heretofore connived with the ego and the id to discount the word as worthless rather than acknowledge our manifest ignorance. However since penetrating the psyche, the word has been noticed anew. This is akin to the cinematic staple of the smart but pretty girl who has previously gone unnoticed until removing her glasses and letting her hair down, thus catching the eye of the popular but secretly sensitive football star.
Now imagine the reverse. Imagine a word or words that have been part of your life since you first progressed beyond baba and mama, suddenly on the missing mots list. This is the situation in which we currently find ourselves. I have noticed that my dear friends, who I have used many times already in this post, have gone from once being very popular to being lacuna non grata at the best parties of the intelligentsia, secular and non-secular alike. These are, of course, the articles (the fraternal twins – definite and indefinite).
In my youth articles were as pervasive as baseball, apple pie, and Bonanza reruns. I have recently come to cognizance that these days the article has fallen into serious disfavor, particularly among the progressive elite. On second thought, perhaps disfavor is not the right word. The English language has always been a living, breathing, and mutating entity. Words and phrases have always been on the rise or fall within the lexicon. Groovy, once as pervasive as bell-bottoms and sideburns, has now fortunately gone the way of the dodo only to be replaced with words like, well … like.
But the phenomenon we are witness to now differs greatly from the natural evolution of colloquial catch-phrases. No, what we are witnessing today is systematic and ideological demotion of the definite. “The” is routinely relegated to “a” and “a” is often abolished altogether. But why, why would such seemingly innocuous words, there only to bring us the proper amount of semantic certainty, be treated in such a shabby manner?
The answer is as obvious as it is inescapable. When the enemy is a message, a message of truth, clarity, and concision — shoot the messenger.
The demotion of the definite has as its sole purpose to sow ambiguity where there once was clarity. When “the” is demoted to “a”, what once was specific and unique becomes just general, one of many possible answers. The indefinite article often suffers worse than demotion, victim to a callous disregard; it finds itself annulled through indifference. Its inclusion in a sentence, so unnecessary, would serve merely to clutter.
As stated, this lexical chicanery has a purpose. This semantic slight of hand is easy to miss, but can drastically change the meaning of language. This was highlighted for me as I was perusing a post on a Lutheran blog which, through polite polemics, was making the case that the Lutheran confessions must continue to assert that the Papacy is Antichrist. I am not going to take issue with the argument per se as St. Robert Bellarmine has already done a much better job than I could ever do. My issue is with the use of language.
Look at that phrase again, “the Papacy is Antichrist.” Did you see what happened there? Antichrist is capitalized and is thus implied as a proper name, but the article has been dropped altogether. Why is that? Is the Papacy the Antichrist? Well, that doesn’t make a linguistic sense since the Antichrist is an individual and not an office. The definite article would definitely imply that the Pope is the Antichrist. The author obviously did not want to go there—it is too difficult to substantiate (especially since the Pope is nearly alone in his defense of Christ these days).
The next logical choice for an article would have been to say that the Papacy is an antichrist. But that just doesn’t pack the right punch. The lack of the proper name of Antichrist just doesn’t give the right zing. That is just like saying “the Pope really doesn’t represent Christ on earth.” Yawn. The author clearly wants to pack the polemical punch of calling the papacy the Antichrist but knows that he can’t really back it up. So, rather than make a clear case one way or the other, he muddies the water by dropping the article completely. That way the reader can read into it whatever he wants.
The author, however is not done with his semantic subterfuge. Making his case for the continuation of the Antichrist teaching, he writes this:
It is therefore important for Lutherans to understand precisely what this teaching is all about and to take care when explaining their beliefs to other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics. Simply put, the historic teaching of the Lutheran Church, as stated here, is that the office held by the particular men chosen to be pope is the fulfillment of what Paul warns the church about in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:3): a man will seat himself in the church of God, as supreme ruler, and claim that his teachings are God’s teaching, making himself thus, effectively, equal to God.
Let’s look at this a little more closely. To make his case, he quoted the Bible 2 Thess. 2:3. Or did he? He said that a man will seat himself in the church of God. Let’s look at the major translations of the Bible available today, shall we?
New International Version – “the man of lawlessness…he sets himself up in God’s temple“
New American Standard Bible – “the man of lawlessness … takes his seat in the temple of God”
English Standard Version – “the man of lawlessness … takes his seat in the temple of God”
And so on. In fact, one of the only versions to have something akin to what the author writes is the King James Version, “that man of sin be revealed …he as God sitteth in the temple of God.” Note that the King James Version was translated by another sect that sought to make the case that the Papacy is Antichrist. The author not only demoted the “the” to an “a” to serve his purpose (to confuse), he also changed “temple of God” to “the Church of God”. All this to substantiate a lie, to undo truth. The fact that the King James Version dropped the article as well merely shows that this type of ploy has a long pedigree.
Anti-papacy Protestants playing with words is one thing, but there are greater concerns out there and within the Catholic church too. The purveyors of this type of linguistic misbehavior have other, even more deadly arrows in their quiver. Not only do they modify or excise the articles to change meaning, they are quite adept at adding words that effectively remove meaning altogether.
I refer, of course, to the deadly possessive pronoun; wherein “truth” becomes “my truth” or “your truth”. God, the immutable Creator, becomes “my god” or “your god”— something small made in our own image and likeness. Of course, when “truth” becomes my or your truth, it ceases to be truth at all. It is no longer something revealed, but something created, crafted, and made pleasing to our fallen nature. With the addition of that little possessive pronoun, truth and God also become our personal property, and thus are easily discarded and replaced when they no longer serve their original purpose.
Undermining language, our ability to effectively communicate with each other, is the most efficacious way to sow confusion and has always been so. The devil and his minions learned this little trick from the Almighty himself. In Genesis, Chapter 11:
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So now the devil, and the heretics and the dissenters in his employ, use language not to build but to destroy. When Jesus redeemed us and gave us the one Church and one language, those opposed to truth looked upon it with fear and said in Godly mimicry “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
And thus they abuse language to sow confusion, to sell a counterfeit truth, or undermine the notion of truth altogether. They do this through many nefarious means disguised as scholarship, critical analysis, inclusive language, and watered-down translations.
One of my favorite eighteenth century Apocalyptic exegetes, the Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser, once spoke of a future generation that bears an eerie similarity to ours …
“They will ridicule Christian simplicity; they will call it folly and nonsense, but they will have the highest regard for advanced knowledge, and for the skill by which the axioms of the law, the precepts of morality, the Holy Canons and religious dogmas are clouded by senseless questions and elaborate arguments. As a result, no principle at all, however holy, authentic, ancient, and certain it may be, will remain free of censure, criticism, false interpretations, modification and delimitation by man.”
We must always be on guard and vigilant in defense of language. For if we lose the battle for lucid language, we—like those ancient inhabitants of Babel—will be scattered to the winds and stop building the city which is God’s Church. That seems like a lot to lose over a few little words.