Stop equivocating!

26 Nov

Dad with daughter

My Dad must have repeated that warning weekly throughout my teen years.  Vaguely aware that he meant it to mean ‘stop arguing‘ or ‘enough of this twisting around of my words!

It wasn’t until ‘logic’ came into my life that I learned both the potential confusion AND danger of equivocal words – those terms that are spelled alike but point to completely different concepts.

Think about pitchers.  Two sorts spring to mind:

Pitcher of lemonade Pitcher throwing ball


It’s only in context that one’s sense becomes clear.

I thought about equivocal words again while mediating on one of God’s teachings in the book of Acts.  The passage is found in chapter 10 where Peter (the leader of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) explains to the Roman officer Cornelius the details surrounding Jesus’ work on earth and his future return:

(verses 42-43) “…..And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

What got me thinking was how some people unfamiliar with the Bible think that God will judge the good and the bad.  Those are the juxtaposed groups they describe.  Yet that is a category error, if one relies on the Bible as the definitive word about God’s judgments.  In the above passage, the people groups mentioned are the living and the dead.  What we can safely infer is that this categorizing is both exclusive and exhaustive.  All humans who ARE living or who HAVE EVER lived fit into one of these two groups: the living and the dead.  

I’ll come back to this teaching in a moment; first let’s look at the erroneous initial division of humans into good and bad.  Here is where my reflection about equivocal terms brought me – pondering the sense of the term ‘good‘.   Many Americans are kind-hearted, generous and desirous of helping their neighbor.

Humanitarian acts

I’m sure you know just such good people.  These God-enabled humanitarian works DO make our world a much better place.  Undeniably.  Yet the term good is problematic precisely because it’s one of those troublesome equivocal words.

Here’s what I mean:

How do we reconcile Jesus telling a well-to-do young Jewish man:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good--except God alone.” (Mark 3:12)

And in the Old Testament the Psalmist writes:

Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:3)

Clearly there is good and there is good!

And we could talk about many other examples of how good is used:

  • good to eat (tasty and/or nutritious)
  • good at playing the piano (skilled)
  • that’s good! (almost meaningless, but communicates your acknowledgment of the news)
  • good weather for fishing/sunbathing/growing your garden (conducive to ______)
  • a good dog, child (well behaved)
  • a good wife (meets my expectations)
  • a good report (complete and accurate)
  • and last but not least, a good deed (kind)

You can probably thing of  more uses.

But the distinction that God describes in His word is one that has eternal consequences.  If

  • no one but God is good (per HIS use of the term) and if
  • He is going to judge the living and the dead

Then, knowing the category He uses is crucial.

Back to the apostle Peter’s explanation to Cornelius; obviously if none of us is good in God’s use of the term, and He separates all into either the living or the dead, then knowing that there IS a way to be reconciled and pleasing and loved and favored by God is pretty important.


Bottom LIne

And the news is ‘good’! (life-giving, joyful)

Reprising the 2nd verse (Acts 10:43) where Peter describes Jesus and his work on earth the first time:

“….To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Hmm…I spot another tricky term: ‘believes‘.  We’ll talk about how to understand the proper sense of  ‘to believe’ next time.

Until then, pick up and read all of Acts, Chapter 10 for yourself.  It’s a short account of what’s important.

2 Responses to “Stop equivocating!”

  1. Steven November 18, 2017 at 3:23 am #

    Good post.

    I like your “pitcher” and “pitcher” example of equivocation.

    “Pitcher” and “pitcher” refer to generically different things that do not have a common source, making them equivocal terms in relation to each other. The same can be said of “bark” (of a tree) and “bark” (of a dog), or “bank” (i.e. a repository for money) and “bank” (a mass of snow along a road or a mass of earth along a river). And so.

    But is “good” really an equivocal term?

    Aristotle uses the term “health” to illustrate analogous predication. “Health” can be applied to both generically and specifically diverse things, e.g. man, food, exercise, medicine, urine, etc. The meaning of “healthy” is the same insofar as each refers to one and the same thing, namely health itself; yet different, too, insofar as it implies different relationships, e.g. man is the subject of health (i.e. health is IN man), urine is a sign of health, and food, exercise, and medicine each cause health.

    Do you think it would be better to say that “good” is analogously predicated, not equivocally predicated?

    The meaning of each of your example usages of “good” seems to be the same insofar as “good” refers to one and the same source, namely God–the highest good and source of all goodness–yet different too, as it implies different relationships: at the very least the difference between Creator and creatures.

    I didn’t come up with any of this stuff. Check it out:

    Book IV, Chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics


    St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on it (Lesson 1, Ch. 2, Paragraph 297)

    • Maria November 18, 2017 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Steven – thank you for taking the time to think through and write out how you see ‘good’ more as an analogous term. I think you are right. Since ‘good’ is a term that measures something in relation to a standard. I like taking the time to consider our words carefully as you apparently do as well. May God continue to bless you in your reading, thinking and writing!

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