Bill Long 1/3/05
A Good Root to Know
I was simply going to write a brief mini-essay today on staurolatry when I got distracted by other entries in the OED and Century Dictionary derived from the root "stauro." It is the from a Greek word meaning "cross," even though the words we know in English relating to "cross" are almost all derived from the Latin "crux, crucis." Thus, we are all familiar with a "crucial" decision or the "cruciality" of someone's presence with us, though we are not very familiar with words that are built off the Greek root.*
[*A word about crucial might not be out of place here. Its oldest use in English appears to be in a medical context. A crucial incision, for example, is an incision in the form of a cross. All athletes know of the ACL--the anterior cruciate ligament--in the knee. They keep their fingers crossed that this ligament stays crossed so that the knee is held together to perform its task. However, Francis Bacon, in his 1620 Novum Organum, written in Latin, brought the terms Instantia crucis into use. Bacon derived the term from a picture in his mind that worked as follows. He says (and I am translating from the Latin as I go),
"the word (instantia crucis) is taken from 'crosses,' which are set up at biways (i.e., intersections), and they show forth and signify the separation of roads. We are accustomed to call these instances decisions or judgments or, in some instances, oracles."
Thus, a crucial instance is when you come to a fork in the road intellectually and have to make a decision. Newton and Boyle used the phrase experimentum crucis to mean the experiment you performed at the "fork in the road" to determine which way to go. Thus, the idea is that as we are traveling along the road of life we come to intersections. Each of the ways we can go has a seeming appeal to us. The arrival at the intersection is an instantia crucis--an instance or occasion for making a choice, while the experimentum crucis is the experiment we perform in order to clarify the choice.
A moment's further reflection will encourage us to reappropriate the Baconian use of the term. Nowadays we use the word "crucial" as synonymous with "very important." "I have a crucial decision to make in the upcoming days." The picture in our minds is not of the process of making the decision but of the difficulty of it. The Baconian and Newtonian uses of crux, crucis stresses the process of decision. We come to a "place where three roads meet" and we know we have to make a decision. Each has its allure. What shall we "bring forward" now to help us decide which road to traverse? The crucial fact will be the one that finally enables us to decide between two rival hypothesis. Seen in this way we can look at our decision-making process as an experimental one in which we bring forward diverse insights to help us resolve current uncertainty. If the decision is very difficult, we may say we are at a crux.]
Back to Stauros
The notion of a "cross" is very much evident in the few English words built off stauros. But, contrary to the use of crux, crucis in English, the use of stauros and its related words almost always has a highly technical meaning in a particular field. In the remainder of this essay and the next, I will show some of the expanse of its meaning in several fields.
Let's start with theology. The Apostle Paul makes the "cross of Christ" a central category in his theology. "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal. 6:14)." Or, again, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2: 19-20)." Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, articulated his "theology of the cross" in response to the Pauline message. One might think that since a "theology of the cross" is central to Paul and Luther there must be a word staurology to designate it. But there isn't. Luther's "theology of the cross," one of the more significant doctrines in his work, is never called his staurology. In fact, rather than the word staurology developing in English, we have a word staurolatry (worship of the cross) used in a negative sense by Puritan preachers of the 17th century. How can this be? The next essay tries to answer this question and then illustrate other uses of stauro.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long