The Evolution of Definitions

Have you ever given thought to how an “official” definition is arrived at for a word/term? What is the basis for which a word is “defined” in a standard secular dictionary? Dictionaries, such as Daniel Webster’s, define terms as is recognized/used by society in a given period of time. For example, in 1850, Webster’s dictionary defined “truth” as: “That which can be proven to be true or that which is authorized by Jesus Christ.” Notice that just a mere 170 years ago, truth was based on things pertaining to the Bible.

However, in 1914, Webster’s gave this definition of “truth”: “A statement that can be proven true based upon concrete facts. For example, truth based on scripture.” In the early 1900s, we see that truth still had scriptural roots.

But notice that in 1996, Webster’s gave a much different definition for “truth”: “A statement believed to be true based upon the beliefs and experiences of the speaker.” By 1996, “truth” was no longer based on anything other than one’s personal opinion. “Truth” was now relative.

Why the change in the definition? Because dictionaries, such as Webster’s, define terms as is recognized/used by society in a given period of time. For this reason, secular dictionaries should be used with caution when applying definitions to Bible terms. The Bible is its own best dictionary. If we commit the time and effort to comparing a term in one passage in its context to the same term in other passages in their contexts, we can determine what the meaning of that particular term is.

The meaning of a term ought not change or “evolve” over time. Truth, in the Bible, has not changed, even though man’s attitude toward it has changed. Jesus said it best in John 17.17: “Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth.

Did Webster’s definition cause people to change their attitudes toward truth as defined in God’s word, or was society’s evolution in attitude toward truth over time merely reflected in the definitions printed by Mr. Webster?

Consider: In a recent poll of Americans who considered themselves to be Christians, 78% felt there was no absolute truth. A separate poll of “Christians” (used loosely) aged 25 and under yielded an even greater number who thought “truth” to be relative. 

This general feeling of relativism in our nation has obviously become popular over the years. It is little wonder that there is no appeal for authority in religious worship or work.

Truth, as found in the Bible, is not a relative standard that any one person may determine for himself. Rather, it is an absolute standard to which all men should submit.