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Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.

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Pastor Osteen and Christian Narcissism: Symptom of a Larger Problem

Posted on August 27, 2014 on Youtube was an upbeat little clip from Pastor Osteen in Houston. But not the pastor you are probably thinking of. No, this is not Joel Osteen but his wife and co-pastor, Victoria.

She said with a big smile on her face and with husband Joel standing next to her in nodding approval:

“When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning, just do good—for your own self. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy.

When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really! You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy—Amen? [calling to the crowd for a positive response]”

Lakewood Church has a congregation of 45,000, making it the largest church in America. It is broadly evangelical in doctrine. Largely preaching a prosperity gospel—a favorite of some charismatic groups—they have grown the church fivefold since Joel took over from his father as pastor. The Osteens have been criticized for a number of things, not the least of which is being soft on sin and twisting the gospel.

Now, some of the most blatant narcissistic blather ever to come from a pulpit can also be laid at their feet. Not only narcissistic, but also blasphemous. One has to wonder how a megachurch in the buckle of the Bible belt can go on and on without the congregants waking up and smelling what’s being shoveled in their direction. If Lakewood Church is any indication of the biblical literacy, genuine devotion to Christ, and fellowship of the saints of the American evangelical church, we are in serious trouble. I know good people—rock-solid believers—in Houston. In fact, I would say that the biblical literacy in Texas is perhaps higher than any other state in the Union. But perhaps I am running in circles that are under the radar. I pray that that is not the case.

At the same time, I would have to say that in my travels throughout North America, speaking in churches everywhere, biblical illiteracy seems to be virtually at an all-time high. And a desire to please God at all costs is a pipe dream—so few Christians even think in such categories! The evangelical church in America needs corporate self-reflection and corporate repentance. How we treat one another, how we honor God, what our understanding of and commitment to the gospel is, and how we measure true success all need a serious overhaul. The root problem seems to be twofold: the marginalization of the word of God and the ‘buddyization’ of Jesus Christ. The scriptures have become irrelevant and the Lord of glory is now immanent but not transcendent in our hearts.

What can we do to fix the problem? A number of things: get into the Word, especially Romans and the Psalms; exalt Jesus Christ in our own hearts and lives and in the midst of others; get outside our comfort zones of common ethnicity, political correctness, and extreme narcissism; get outside our comfort zone of hiding our sins and learn to confess to one another and the Lord; learn about the magnificence of our God; and live to please him.

Some suggested reading:

  1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God
  2. Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God
  3. D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
  4. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
  5. Jared C. Wilson, Romans: A 12-Week Study
  6. Bruce Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship

 

 

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Becoming Christ-like: The Goal of the Christian Life?

When asked what is the goal of the Christian life, a typical mantra heard in evangelical circles is the knee-jerk response, “To become Christ-like.” Some folks really think through what they are saying and their views are more nuanced than this slogan. But most Christians, I fear, just parrot what they’ve been taught. This post examines this motto with a view toward articulating what the goal of the Christian life should be.

When I was a young man, I desperately wanted to be Christ-like. I was told that this was the primary objective of the Christian life. The more I worked at it, however, the more I began to see my failings. Every time I needed to ask forgiveness from someone, I considered myself a failure at the prime objective. Every time someone corrected me or pointed out some blind-spot in my life, I realized that I was treading backwards. It started to unnerve me. As the years rolled on, these constant failings became too much. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, I recoiled at the notion that I was still a depraved sinner. After all, I had been a believer for many years—shouldn’t I be reaching perfection by now?

Of course, I rejected the Keswick model of sanctification—the idea that one could be in fellowship one minute and out the next, in the next, and so on; that wasn’t my problem. I also had rejected the Wesleyan perfectionism model—at least, theoretically. I knew that I really was never going to be perfect in this life, even in a limited sense. But I nevertheless assumed that I should be much more mature than I really was. So, in order to salve my conscience about reaching the goal of Christ-likeness, I began to hide my sin. I put blinders on when I was confronted about my behavior, and wormed my way out of asking for forgiveness, justifying my lack of need for such on the basis of my supposed maturity. I would rationalize my sin, and see fault in the one who pointed it out. “Ah, that guy is not very godly, so why should I listen to him?”

At one point, when I was in college, I made a table of the characteristics of love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of every day I would rate myself on how I was doing. I’d use a 100-point scale. The irony is that the very passage that was intended to help me focus on others became a means for me to focus on myself. Christ-likeness meets legalism!

But the more I studied scripture, the more I came to realize that I had gotten the focus of the Christian life totally out of whack. If my goal is for me to become Christ-like, then my goal is inevitably and necessarily self-centered. How well am I doing at this goal? What do I look like as a Christian? My goal had become my role, and the focus had become too inward.

There is time for introspection in the Christian life. It should, however, be a time of repentance toward the Lord and gratitude for his love and mercy. But there is also the need for robust concentration on the Lord and on others. Paul tells the Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil 2.3 [NET]). I used to argue with this verse: “Yes, but if all of us did this, then no one would be more important than anyone else!” Missing Paul’s point is putting things charitably. The Lord was the first to rub Deuteronomy 6.5 Leviticus 19.18 together, calling them “the greatest commandment” and one “like it”: Love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22.34–40). The focus in these passages is not on one’s role and therefore not on one’s self-image, needs, or ego. The focus is on the glory of God and the needs of others.

There it was, in black and white, and I missed it all these years! If the goal of the Christian life is primarily to glorify God, then the focus is certainly not on myself. It’s the combination of attitude and actions that work together to magnify the Lord. And the second goal of the Christian life is to focus on the needs of others. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean to love your neighbor as you should love yourself. No, self-love is assumed, not commanded. Loving one’s neighbor is not.

One of the implications of this new revelation (to me) about the goal of the Christian life was that by focusing on what I should become I was missing on the proper outward and upward view of life. And it became harder and harder for me to admit my wrong to others. But the believer who seeks God’s glory and thinks hard about the welfare of their fellow-saints is not arrogant, does not hold grudges, is not self-absorbed. All of us, for as long as we live in this world, will need to ask forgiveness from someone. The mature person recognizes his own sins and readily admits them to others whom he has offended. The one who focuses on his own Christ-likeness is focusing on a tertiary goal and can end up being blinded by his own ambition.

For many, this blog is a simple lesson, one that you’ve come to recognize for a long, long time. For others, it may be startling, unsettling. But the self-absorption of American Christianity has a lot to learn. I pray that each of us can make the main thing the main thing, shed ourselves of our insecurities, and begin each day by asking, “How can I magnify you today, Lord?”

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New Twist on an Old Yarn—Chicken crossing the Road

MARTIN LUTHER: The chicken was already justified, so why did she even try to cross the road?

JOHN CALVIN: The chicken was chosen from before the foundation of the world to cross the road.

JOHN WALVOORD: The road is a terrifying place. But chickens can escape the road if they believe right now!

BILL BRIGHT: All chickens try to cross the road, but the road between us and the great Rooster-in-the-Sky is too great.

HOWARD HENDRICKS: Chickens are not born; they choose to be chickens in the crucible of experience.

AL QAIDA: Strapped to the chicken is a tiny bomb—our answer to Satan’s drones! Die, America!

ORIGEN: The chicken is the heart of man; the road, his body. Crossing the road is just background noise because it doesn’t fit with my interpretation.

BART EHRMAN: There is no proof that ‘chicken’ is in the original manuscript. It could just as easily have been a raccoon.

ROBERT W. FUNK: The chicken is painted black, but the road is pink. The likelihood that ‘chicken’ is what was said is doubtful because there is no proof that chickens existed in Palestine at this time, while roads probably did. The chicken is a later accretion added by pious scribes in the fourth century.

KARL BARTH: Whether this chicken actually existed, we all must face our own chickens so that the Word of the Road becomes real to us.

ROBERT FROST: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; the chicken took the road more traveled and was squashed like a bug.

TREY GOWDY: We’ll get some answers—or food—when I grill that chicken!

SHAKESPEARE: To cross or not to cross—that is the question. Or not.

POPE FRANCIS: Whether the chicken crossed the road, was road-kill, stayed on this side of the road, or even denied the road’s existence, if it’s a good chicken she will go to heaven.

Chick-fil-A: Be assured, we’ll get her!

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There Were Giants in Those Days: Codex Robertsonianus, Part 3

In my previous posts about the correspondence between Adolf Deissmann and A. T. Robertson concerning a Greek Gospels manuscript, I showed the pictures of Deissmann’s first and second letters, along with a transcription of them.

This is the third of four parts of that correspondence. These letters constitute the A. T. Robertson Papers, Box 7, Folder 3, Archives and Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. I am grateful to Adam Winters, archivist at SBTS, who provided the photographs. They are used with permission of the SBTS Archives & Special Collections.

 

Deissmann to Robertson_30 May 1927_page 1 of 2

 

Professor Dr. Adolf Deissmann
Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Prinzregentenstrasse 6., May 30th., 1927.

My dear Dr. Robertson:

Some days ago I received your kind letter of May 10, 1927 and the enclosed draft. Best thanks. Imediately [sic] I sent the Codex to your address by one of our best Berlin forwarding offices (Edmund Franzkowiak & Co, Berlin–Wilmersdorf, Uhlandstraße 83/84). According to your request I insured it for full value and took care that they packed the valuable object in a zinc box and in a wooden box. The costs are

             two boxes, charge for postage, expedition           10.05 Marks
insurance 1½% of the value                                   45.—
________
55.05 Marks, that

are about $13.—

I was very much interested, of course, in your communication about Rev. John W. Bowman and I wish to congratulate him that he will find such an object for his Thesis. Please tell him that it was not possible for me to hear from the Levantine dealer further details about the discovery of the MS. These gentlemen are very reserved in such things. The only fact he discovered to me was that the Codex came from the Trapezunt area. This is, in my opinion, credible. The Trapezunt area was inhabited by many Greeks before 1922, and there were some Greek monasteries which possessed Greek manuscripts. I suppose that our Codex was put on the market after that tragic catastrophe of 1922. You know there are other Trapezunt Codices noted by Gregory.

 

Deissmann to Robertson_30 May 1927_page 2

If you give any communication[n]s about the Codex please don’t mention that it came fr[o]m a Turkish dealer. The Turkish authorities would otherw[i]se perhaps take precautions in other cases to make impossible the export. I think such treasures ought to be in Christian libraries, and therefore it is better not to prevent the possibility of getting them. I think the only detail for publicity should be:

“The Library of The Sout[h]ern Baptist Theological Seminary . . . .
has had the opportunity to acquire a Parchment Tetra-Evangelion
coming from the Trapezunt area (Asia Minor).”

The Codex must have, as you suggested, a number. Please write concerning this question, after getting the MS., to

Professor Dr. Ernst von Dobschütz,
Lafontaine = Lh. 2i,    Halle a. Saale, Germany

He is the specialist who undertook the continuation of that system. But concerning the origin of the MS don’t give him other details than the above mentioned lines. Of course you should give him the most important details about the contents, measures etc. of the MS.

Now I hope that the Codex will reach you safely. Please give me a notice immediately.

With kind regards
Cordially yours
Adolf Deissmann

 

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LSJ’s Greek-English Lexicon in Logos Bible software: a Review

Anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with ancient Greek is familiar with the venerable Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon. It is a huge book, with a history reaching back more than 150 years. I have two copies, both extensively marked up—one for school and one for home. But the sheer size of the volume has sometimes caused my hand to falter. A digitized version would make my life so much easier.

The folks at Logos apparently recognized the need of many students and digitized this standard lexicon. It seems that they have thought through everything to make it truly user-friendly. Rather than simply digitize the Lexicon, they have brought it into the electronic world in a superb way. One of the basic problems with using LSJ in print-form was that the Supplement at the back of the Lexicon needed to be consulted for a very large number of words, requiring the user to first examine the entry in the main lexicon, then see the update in the back. This two-step process has created quite a bit of inertia so that many students simply look at the main body of the Lexicon, thus short-changing themselves in the process.

The Logos version, however, has combined both sections: “Lexicon users no longer need to examine two different locations in the lexicon when studying a word that is included in the supplement. The content has been seamlessly integrated.” This alone is worth the price of the module!

But Logos has done even more. One of the key changes has been to eliminate the hyphens in LSJ’s word entries, allowing for an easier search for a word. Other very useful search features make this tool an indispensable resource for those studying ancient Greek.

There are a few irritating features, however. Chief among them are the numerous accent mistakes on word entries. All too frequently, accents are left off words, especially adjectives and nouns. Sometimes double accents are used; other times a grave accent is found over the penult. (Some examples of these mistakes: ἀβουλητος, ἀβουλος, ἁβροβιος, ἁβρογοος, ἁβροδαις, ἁβροπηνος, ἁβροπλουτος, ἀγνωμων, ἀγορὰζω, ἀγορασμα, βᾰρῠχειρ, βαυκισμα, βεβαιωμα, ἐρῆμος, ἑτερογνης, λογογρᾰφημα, λογοποιημα, λογχοομαι, λοιμη, μαγγᾰνον, μαιευσις, οἷόνπερ, οἰστρημα). These errata definitely need to be cleaned up for later iterations. Nevertheless, the positive features far outweigh these mistakes, making this resource a goldmine of efficient, searchable data.

The module can be ordered here: https://www.logos.com/product/3879/liddell-and-scott-greek-english-lexicon?utm_source=http%3A%2F%2Fdanielbwallace.com%2F&utm_medium=partner&utm_content=productreview-3879&utm_campaign=promo-productreview 

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There Were Giants in Those Days: Codex Robertsonianus, Part 2

In my previous post about the correspondence between Adolf Deissmann and A. T. Robertson concerning a Greek Gospels manuscript, I showed the pictures of Deissmann’s first letter, along with a transcription of it.

This is the second of four parts of that correspondence. These letters constitute the A. T. Robertson Papers, Box 7, Folder 3, Archives and Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. I am grateful to Adam Winters, archivist at SBTS, who provided the photographs. They are used with permission of the SBTS Archives & Special Collections.

Deissmann to Robertson_2 Apr 1927

Professor Dr. Adolf Deissmann
Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Prinzregentenstrasse 6., April 2nd., 1927.

My dear friend Robertson:

I thank you very much for your kind letter of March 19., which I received to-day. Well: I hold the Tetra-Evangelium at your disposal and deposited it for you in my banker’s safe. Perhaps it may be possible for you to order it in your hand not later than May, because afterwards I must be absent from here several times. Please don’t mention my name; some other friends could ask otherwise why I did not offer it to themselves.

With best wishes
Cordially yours
Adolf Deissmann

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