This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm that expressions toward God, be they prayers, preached sermons, poems, or music, may be parsed for their meaning and judged for their appropriateness for worship. We affirm that understanding of meanings is gained both from Scripture and from sources outside Scripture: correct judgments about natural meaning can be made by believers and unbelievers alike (Acts 17:28).
We deny that the subjective nature of these expressions makes it impossible to render a true judgment. We deny that seeking knowledge of meaning outside of Scripture compromises its final authority or denies its sufficiency (Ps. 19, Rom. 1:20ff).
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him
and for him. And he is before all things,
and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17).
Christians believe that God created all things. This belief implies several important truths. First, since God created all things, his good creation constitutes an expression of himself. Furthermore, God created nothing without a purpose. His ultimate purpose was to glorify himself, using the things he made to reveal his nature and character. In a very real sense, creation is a revelation of God.
Thus, all creation means something. It means what God intended it to mean. It declares his glory and proclaims his handiwork, revealing knowledge of him (Ps. 19:1–2). It clearly presents his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20).
God’s creation means these things whether or not people acknowledge their meaning. In fact, Paul explains in Romans 1 that unbelievers have suppressed the knowledge of God, even though it is clearly expressed to them through what he has made. That is why they are without excuse.
Another implication of our belief in divine creation is that, since we are made in the image of God, we also have the ability to create. Unlike God, we cannot make something from nothing; we must begin with the material he has made. Like God’s creation, however, whatever we create expresses or reveals ourselves, our values, our goals, our delights, and our ambitions.
In other words, all human creations also mean something. Consequently, nothing that exists lacks meaning. Everything that we encounter was made either by God or by humans. As with God’s creation, so with human creations: the meanings exist whether or not people understand or even acknowledge them.
Meaning is expressed in both content and form. Content is what is expressed; form is how the content is expressed. Both carry meaning at one or more levels. For example, some meaning is purely stipulative, while other meanings arise through association. These meanings are most flexible. They can change from person to person and may even be idiosyncratic. An example of a divinely stipulated meaning is the association of the rainbow with God’s promise never again to destroy the earth with water. An example of a humanly stipulated meaning is the association of the rainbow with homosexuality.
Other meaning is conventional, taught and learned as part of the stuff of life. Conventional meanings are often so habitual as to seem nearly transparent. For example, the United States and Canada employ the convention of driving on the right side of the road. Americans and Canadians often experience disorientation while adapting to the opposite custom in the United Kingdom. Also, many aspects of language function conventionally—if all language were purely stipulative, communication would not be possible.
Still other meaning is natural and intuitive. Evidence that natural meaning exists and is universal can be found in at least two considerations, each of which points to a world of shared meaning. First, whatever God created is expressive because it reveals him, and thus is universal in its message. Layers of stipulative, associative, or conventional meaning may be added on top of the natural meanings of created things, but at some level all humans experience the meaning of created things as pointers to God and his purpose.
Second, universal meaning is possible because people share a common humanity. Because of shared biology, anatomy, and sensibilities, all people experience reality and express themselves in similar ways. Whatever expressions of meaning flow from this shared humanity will be universal and intuitive. Consequently, Christians should be committed not only to interpreting what God intends by his creation, but also what humans intend by the expressions they produce.
Understanding meaning is especially important when these two worlds of meaning intersect, for humans are responsible to speak rightly both to and about God. We must attend to meaning when we read and preach God’s written Revelation, when we express ourselves to God through prayers, and when we worship or share our spiritual experience through music and the sung word. Since human expressions mean something, and since not all expressions can rightly be addressed to God, Christians must be careful to parse the meanings of their expressions to determine whether they are fitting.