What does that word mean? – 10: the problem of theology

Posted: January 11, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Christian scholars have a particular problem in studying word-meaning: the interference of theology.

Bible scholarship should work like this: the one authoritative source-book for Christian theology is the Bible. We develop our theological ideas by listening to what the Bible says. That means starting with the text, and ending with theology. First the meaning of the text, then the theology implied by those meanings.

The direction is crucial. If we reverse the direction, starting with theology and using it to control our reading of the Bible texts, then we will end up reading our own thoughts into the text. It will be difficult to hear what the text has to say, because the interpretation is distorted by our preconceived ideas. The bible will not be able to challenge our beliefs, since those beliefs will control the reading.

So the order is

text –> meaning –> theology

Ok, we’re simplifying a bit here. But this is the basic direction things should go in, especially when reading the New Testament.

This has implications for studying word meanings. Understanding word meanings is a part of reading and interpreting the text: in fact it’s right back at the start of the process. That means that word studies belong there, as an aid to reading the sentences and understanding the meaning of the text. Word studies are not theological studies: theology comes much later in the process, once we know what the texts are saying.

word study –> text –> meaning –> theology

This is where the trouble starts. For we evangelicals tend to ignore this right process in two important ways. First, we try to do our theology by doing word-studies. We make a list of all the occurrences of the term in the NT, combine their immediate meanings, and – instant theology! I.e. we jump straight from text to theology, bypassing the essential steps of reading the text and understanding its meaning. This was the process TDNT employed as its modus operandi.

Screen shot 2013-01-10 at 11.09.06 AM

Why do we do theology this way? It’s because we have fallen into the trap, described in previous posts, of confusing word with referent, mistaking the sign for the thing the sign points to. We imagine the word = the theology. We have a doctrine about grace, and the NT uses the word ‘grace’. So the way to study this doctrine is to examine each NT use of the word ‘grace’. As if this NT word were the doctrine. Instead of coming away with some idea of the word’s meaning, we think we’re coming away with a theological concept.

When we collapse word and theology like this, we bypass all the other NT meanings which ought to contribute to that theology, but which don’t employ the word ‘grace’. There is much more to  the business of doing theology than studying individual words. Most of the meaning in the NT comes from the sentences and paragraphs: it is not found at the level of the word. Our doctrine about grace should be informed by the history of Israel, the parables of Jesus, the Christological song in Philippians 2, etc. If we limit our theology to what can be gleaned from word studies, much of the content which should shape our doctrine is lost.  This was James Barr’s critique of TDNT: word-study theology is bad theology.

But the more serious problem is when the reverse process happens. Theological interference makes for bad word studies.

Tomorrow: theological interference in the linguistic process

  1. […] For more on the problem of word-study theologising, see here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s