Nathan Richardson

This will be a brief post. I just want to make one point about how we use words. This matters because sometimes when discussing the gospel, people will use one passage of scripture or quote from a prophet, and then use it to make assumptions about another passage. That can cause misunderstandings or lead to faulty conclusions. The antidote is to be aware of context.

Context-Dependent Gestures

Does this guy want you to come closer or skeedaddle? It all depends on the context. What’s that got to do with the words of prophets? Read on.

We could compare it to hand gestures. All of my siblings served in Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, and we’ve all learned that hand gestures that you use in the United States are not necessarily the ones you should use abroad. The first time my brother played “Got your nose!” with a little kid, he was told in no uncertain terms by the Ecuadorian mother that the common American gesture we use for that game (a fist with the thumb between the index and middle fingers) is very vulgar in many Latin American countries.

Likewise, I learned that our “Get out of here” gesture (arm outstretched towards the other person, palm downward, all four fingers repeatedly flapping away from yourself) in some countries means “Come here” (see the image at the beginning of this article). I find it intriguing and potentially very funny that a gesture in one culture has virtually the opposite meaning in another culture. (There’s a romantic comedy scene just begging to be made with this somehow.)

So ask yourself, if you saw someone make this gesture, what does that person mean? The only way to answer the question is by looking at the context. Is the person who’s making the gesture a Coloradan or a Columbian? And even if you know the gesturer’s origin, they might use a different gesture depending on their audience and surroundings. Are they gesturing to a South Dakotan or a Salvadoran? Are you seeing the gesture in Pennsylvania or Panama? If we misinterpret, we might accidentally come closer and annoy someone, or walk away and miss out on the cookies they were going to give us. As you can see, the stakes are high. 🙂

Context-Dependent Terminology

Dallin H. Oaks
You can learn a lot by paying attention to how one person uses the same words in different settings.

Context is equally important in spoken language. Sometimes when prophets speak, they use words generically or as colloquially, as a layman. Other times, when they want to explain particular details of God’s plan, they might use the same words as before, but with very specific, technical meanings. For example, in many cases, prophets use the terms sin and transgression interchangeably and synonymously. But when discussing some finer doctrines regarding morality, Elder Dallin H. Oaks found it useful to give those two words technical and distinct meanings:

Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.1

Elder Oaks is careful to point out that, while in the context of that particular talk, he uses the words distinctly, they might be used synonymously by other speakers in other settings. If we were to apply the distinction between sin and transgression that Elder Oaks makes, and incorrectly assume that it applies to any and every scripture passage, we would be either confused or draw odd or inaccurate conclusions, because prophets sometimes use them interchangeably. Interestingly, Elder Oaks himself does this on some occasions. Notice that he does not use sin with a technical meaning when speaking in another setting:

Our Savior has redeemed us from the sin of Adam, but what about the effects of our own sins?2

If we assumed that Elder Oaks always used sin and transgression distinctively and technically, we would conclude that he did not understand the unique Restoration doctrine of the Fall, nor the difference between the two types of spiritual death that I have spent this entire series delineating. However, if you go read his writings (e.g., the quote by him in the Spiritual Death Quiz), it’s obvious he understands the difference. We just need to remember his caveat about context, echoed by Elder Gerald N. Lund:

For clarification, let us use two terms to delineate the important differences in these two concepts [sin and transgression]. … The scriptures do not distinguish between these two terms consistently, but such a distinction may help us understand some important points about the Atonement.3

Therefore, when you’re reading a passage and want to know what the author means by certain terminology, just like with the hand gestures, consider the context.

This same context-dependent vocabulary also applies to the word soul (cf. Alma 40:18 with D&C 88:15), as well as to the use of salvation, exaltation, and eternal life (cf. D&C 132:17 with Bruce R. McConkie’s statement, “Salvation means eternal life; the two terms are synonymous; they mean exactly the same thing”4). I think a case could be made that the word law is used differently by Moses, Paul, and Lehi.5 In every case, just because a speaker gives distinctive definitions for the purposes of their address does not mean we can assume those same definitions for other speakers, or even for that same speaker in other situations or writings. In other circumstances, they may use the terms interchangeably.

Conclusions

This is my long-winded and perhaps over-thorough way of saying that context matters when trying to understand a writer or speaker. The following points should be kept in mind:

  1. A writer may use a word in a different way from how another writer uses it (including writers with shared beliefs, such as prophets).
  2. A writer may use a word in a different way from how he himself uses it in another setting.
  3. Context is important to understanding what a writer means by a certain word.
  4. Two statements that are apparently contradictory may not be; it may be due to using the same word in two different ways.

The main reason I wrote this post is because sometimes on this blog, when trying to examine some nuanced ideas, we will give words technical meanings. When doing so, we want readers to understand that they may not find such usage outside the particular article they are reading. For example, I frequently use the words sorrow and misery in distinctive ways, but that does not mean you will find that usage employed consistently when reading what prophets have said about sadness and suffering. I want to preemptively head off objections that might be based on overlooking the way words are used in limited contexts. For example, if I say, “Misery is only caused by sin,” and someone finds a quote from a modern prophet that says, “Even those innocent of sin suffer the miseries of mortality,” the apparent contradiction is due to the fact that I am using a narrower definition of misery than that prophet is.

This principle does not only apply to this website, however. It can be useful to remember in just about any exercise that involves interpreting texts.



Notes

1. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, Nov. 1993.

2. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Light and Life of the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1987.

3. Gerald N. Lund, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17.

4. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Salvation of Little Children,” Ensign, Apr. 1977.

5. On a related note, modern prophets usually use want to mean desire, but virtually every time want is used in the scriptures, it means lack. If we assumed a modern meaning, we would be very confused and wonder why “David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel; neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before me to offer burnt offerings” (Jer. 33:17–18).