Etymology is the study of a word’s development over time. More technically it is defined by Merriam-Webster to be “the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another.” Knowing the influences on a word help us understand its meaning.
Now words can have nuances and in the case of words with multiple meanings must always be defined in their context. For example, our word “bank” has merging etymologies in English, one from Scandinavia meaning the edge of a river and another from French meaning where we place our money. Thus saying “I sat by the bank” can be ambiguous and needs to be interpreted by the context. However, most words have a fairly universal consistency in meaning.
For instance, during this campaign year consider the word “elect.” Where did we get that word? Well, it comes to us out of the Middle English from the Latin word electus, a past participle of the verb eligere which means “to select from, to choose.” Based on the root of this word, we can all agree, can we not, that someone who has been elected to office has been selected from among all the candidates by the voters? With the word “elect” and “election” used so commonly in our modern democratic state, we should have little argument over what it means, should we? We might disagree over whom should be elected, and may have arguments over the results or procedure of an election, but understanding the meaning or idea of an election we have down pretty well.
Yet there is one context when the meaning of this word seems to change. It’s when it is used in the Bible.
Now, most of the time when the words “election” or “choose” are used in the Bible that’s not the case. Bible readers will generally agree with its use in examples such as these:
- When Lot “chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan” (Geneis 13:11), no one argues much over the fact that of all the land around him presented to him by Abraham, he selected the best land, that which was like “the garden of the Lord.”
- When Jesus said to His disciples in John 15:16 “You did not choose Me but I chose you,” we can agree that He clearly chose the Twelve to follow Him (Luke 6:13).
- From my readings, most Christians have no problem saying that God chose the Jews to be his special people, as Paul says in Acts 13:17, “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers” (see also Deuteronomy 7:6).
You see, we will allow that men choose their leaders, lands, and even their gods, and will argue they have that inalienable right. And when it comes to thinking about God having the right to choose, the Arminians and dispensationalists will agree with Reformed folks and say that God chose Israel from all the nations in the Old Testament. Then why is it that when we come to verses such as Ephesians 1:4, which says about the church that God “chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world,” all of a sudden the meaning of the word “chose” changes?
Rather than believing that God elected those who would be saved before the world was even created, the word “chose” has to be redefined. The common explanation is that God looked down through the passage of time, saw what people would believe in Christ, then chose them based on their decision. Do you get that? They take a passage that clearly states that God chose His people and say that, in effect, it means His people chose God.
This not only undermines the meaning of a word we all should readily understand as seen above, but as theologian John Gerstner once raised it also in essence insults the intelligence of God. In what way? It presents God as decreeing that those who are Christians should be considered Christians.
Be careful of choosing your own etymology. Why not instead marvel over what God is so clearly saying?