WordWatch: Professor

Are you a professor of Christianity?

Today we tend to use the word ‘professor’ to mean “a teacher of the highest rank in a university department” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). Mind you, Americans often apply the title to any teacher at college level, and, in Aussie English, ‘professor’ can be used jokingly of anyone who either has, or pretends to have, a lot of knowledge. So today the word ‘professor’ is linked to this notion of having a great deal of knowledge.

Therefore, when we come across CH Spurgeon referring to all believers as ‘professors’, it can strike us as odd. What he is doing is appealing to an older meaning of the word. When ‘professor’ first appeared in English, it had two meanings—one of which has survived. In medieval universities, the degrees of Doctor or Magister were originally qualifications to teach publicly. But gradually that right was restricted to an inner circle to whom the title ‘Professor’ came to be applied. (The title was cemented in place when Henry VIII created five Regius or King’s Professors.)

The other, earlier meaning of the word has largely died out: recorded in Old English from the fourth century, a ‘professor’ is “one who makes open profession of religion; a professing Christian”. Sometimes Spurgeon used the word this way (with ‘professor’ meaning ‘believer’), and sometimes he used it to mean a ‘nominal Christian’—one who professes to a faith he doesn’t, in fact, hold: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16).

This older meaning makes everyone who claims to be a Christian a ‘professor’ (publicly professing, confessing and laying claim to Christian faith). Some may be genuine professors (like the women who profess godliness in 1 Timothy 2:10) while others may be the fakes of Titus 1:16.

But the knowledge component of the word still doesn’t quite disappear since all genuine ‘professors’ of the Christian faith will have a lot of knowledge of what they profess to believe. The importance of knowledgeable Christians is why Paul prays that the Philippians may “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:9).

So are you a professor of Christianity? And are the people you teach professors of Christianity? (Genuine professors, of course, not those ungodly fakers!)

Comments are closed.