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What B.B. Warfield had to say about words that were being drained of their meaning in an article that he wrote for The Princeton Theological Review just over a century ago in April 1916 (“Redeemer” and “Redemption”) seems as if it could be equally applicable to the situation we find in today’s society.
It is sad to witness the death of any worthy thing, — even of a worthy word. And worthy words do die, like any other worthy thing — if we do not take care of them. How many worthy words have already died under our very eyes, because we did not take care of them! Tennyson calls our attention to one of them. “The grand old name of gentleman,” he sings, “defamed by every charlatan, and soil’d with all ignoble use.” If you persist in calling people who are not gentlemen by the name of gentlemen, you do not make them gentlemen by so calling them, but you end by making the word gentleman mean that kind of people. The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care — they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word “Evangelical.” It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means. Even our Dictionaries no longer know….the official name of the Protestant Church in a large part of Germany is “The Evangelical Church.” When this name was first acquired by that church it had a perfectly defined meaning, and described the church as that kind of church. But having been once identified as that kind of church, it has drifted with it into the bog. The habit of calling “Evangelical” everything which was from time to time characteristic of that church or which any strong party in that church wished to make characteristic of it — has ended in robbing the term of all meaning. Along a somewhat different pathway we have arrived at the same state of affairs in America. Does anybody in the world know what “Evangelical” means, in our current religious speech? The other day, a professedly evangelical pastor, serving a church which is certainly committed by its formularies to an evangelical confession, having occasion to report in one of our newspapers on a religious meeting composed practically entirely of Unitarians and Jews, remarked with enthusiasm upon the deeply evangelical character of its spirit and utterances.
But we need not stop with “Evangelical.” Take an even greater word. Does the word “Christianity” bear a definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is. Auguste Sabatier makes it out to be just altruism; Josiah Royce identifies it with the sentiment of loyalty; D.C. Macintosh explains it as nothing but morality. We hear of Christianity without dogma, Christianity without miracle, Christianity without Christ. Since, however, Christianity is a historical religion, an undogmatic Christianity would be an absurdity; since it is through and through a supernatural religion, a non-miraculous Christianity would be a contradiction; since it is Christianity, a Christless Christianity would be — well, let us say lamely (but with a lameness which has perhaps it own emphasis), a misnomer. People set upon calling unchristian things Christian are simply washing all meaning out of the name. If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing.