Friday, March 3, 2023

On the Importance of Adjectives

In Greek class we've been studying adjectives. Many of my students were surprised to learn (as I was when I first studied Greek) that adjectives have three "degrees":

  • Positive: big
  • Comparative: bigger
  • Superlative: biggest

These differences are often of vital importance, and not only in Greek. A story about Ruth Graham, the wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates what I'm trying to say. 

The year was 1974, and Christians from 150 counties had arrived on the shore of Lake Geneva for a conference centering on the Great Commission. 

One issue became particularly controversial: the correct balance between evangelism and social action. In the end, the Lausanne Congress issued its "Covenant," whose primary author was John Stott. Perhaps the most anxiously-awaited clause was paragraph 9:

Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.

At the closing service, 2,000 out of the 2,400 participants agreed to sign the covenant. Ruth Graham was not one of them. While admiring John Stott, she found his espousal of a simple lifestyle too confining. "If it read 'simpler,' I would sign it," she said. "But what is 'simple'? You live in two rooms. I have a bigger home. You have no children. I have five. You say your life is simple and mine isn't." 

Do you see how an adjective made all the difference in the world? This is but one example of the importance of adjectives in language. That's why Greek students have to study them. Is it "evil" in Matt. 6:13 or "the evil one"? Are the children of elders to be "believers" or "faithful" (Tit. 1:6)? Is an overseer to be "able to teach" or "teachable"? 

As for the simple/simpler debate, I strongly suspect that both Ruth Graham and John Stott could agree on one thing: New Testament believers cared deeply for their poor brothers and sisters and shared their belongings with them. Stott would sometimes put it like this: Christian social responsibility depends on socially responsible Christians. And socially responsible Christians are the fruit of evangelism. Only when the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts can we begin to develop a social conscience. 

Ah, language. How wonderful a gift it is. Who among us does not need to study it more diligently?