And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him,“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
(Mark 10:17-18, ESV)
Language is a tricky thing. We can use it to achieve some of the greatest works in human history like the Rosetta stone, the Declaration of Independence, the book of Genesis, or the Gettysberg Address. We can all get caught arguing in circles or confusing ourselves because of a bad grasp of language.
In Apologetics conversations we often deal in subtle distinctions, tricky theories, and offensive subjects. So it’s especially important for apologists to pick their words carefully and define them clearly. Jesus was known to point out ambiguous verbage when for example someone asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Before Jesus addresses the heart of his question, he first points out a subtle confession. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks, “No man is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). This man had unintentionally confessed the deity of Christ, since no mere mortal is good but Jesus is is ‘good teacher.’ Good definitional work can, sometimes, expose covert assumptions, illicit expectations, or hidden ideas, and potentially reveal cracks in an otherwise pristine worldview. Other times, good definitional work just helps us deliberate between terms, to find the best one for what we’re trying to say.
Apologetics is kind of like worldview surgery. And definitional work is often the prerequisite evaluation we can do before any triage, diagnosis, or treatment is possible. With a good sense of our terms, we can access what the other person is really trying to say, and use terms that they’ll understand. And by distinguishing different senses and implications of our words, we can interact with any subtext they may not have even realized they were saying. Perhaps a person has a great idea, but is saddled with a foolish expectation or poor terminology. Definitional work can help there too
In short, when we define our terms well, we can precisely treat subtle subjects, expose covert assumptions, reveal illicit expectations, and press confused and errant ideas till they collapse. And best of all, we can find better tools and materials for constructing a superior worldview.