What does that word mean? 11 – Theological carpet bombing

Posted: January 12, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Word-study theology is bad theology. But the reverse is also true.

Theological interference makes for bad word studies.

Remember we’ve said Bible scholarship should work like this:

text –> meaning –> theology

The second way we evangelicals tend to ignore this is the one that upsets the linguists. It’s a little more difficult to unravel.

When we come to study words imagining we are studying theology, we accidentally bring our own theological agendas to the study. This can be quite destructive of the linguistic process.

It happens like this:

We all – scholars included – come to the Scriptures with a pre-existing set of theological convictions. And these convictions are expressed in words, theological words. Faith, repentance, God, justification, sin, etc: all theological words. We know what these words mean to us in our tradition. They stand for rich, complex, well-developed concepts.

But there’s the rub. For coming to the Bible, we find all those words there also (or at least Greek equivalents). What could be more natural than to read these words with the meaning they have in our modern theological tradition? We assume that our tradition is biblical, so surely it’s a safe practice! We read all our theological meaning into the word in the text, without even noticing we’re doing it.

If we feel very strongly about a point of theology, we will tend to insist that the related words in the NT must mean the doctrine we hold.

There are problems here, of course. One is that we never manage to investigate what the word actually means – for we think we already know what it must mean. Another is that word-meaning is being determined by something completely outside the text: our theology. The answer is determined before we even ask the question, ‘What does this word mean?’. In this way theology interferes in the linguistic process, biasing our reading of the texts, and fouling the impartiality of the word-study.

Coming to do word-studies with a theological agenda is a bit like a judge being paid by a political party, and posting political posters all over his court room. We would be worried that impartial justice might be subverted by his political aims. We would suspect bias.

It takes crystal clarity about what a word is, and what a referent is, to avoid falling into this error. That clarity would make us ask over and over, ‘What does this word mean here, this time?’ And this is the clarity which James Barr demonstrated is lacking in so much modern bible scholarship.

The problem becomes acute when word-studies are done in a context of doctrinal disputes and controversy. In those cases the theological concerns are more than usually pressing, and these concerns often send scholars back to the text hoping to strengthen their position. When word-studies are done in a theologically charged atmosphere, it is very difficult indeed to avoid interference.

One sign of doctrinal interference is an insistence that a word always has one meaning.  This usually means that a theological idea is driving things. For our theological ideas are focussed unities: we don’t have two doctrines of repentance, we have just one. Word-meanings are not like this, as we have seen – but when they get caught up in theological battles, they are often squeezed into service. Multiple meanings, or a range of meanings, is too ambiguous a situation to help in doctrine battles. We need something clear and simple to shore up our focussed position. So words, to be helpful, must mean one thing. The tighter or narrower your theological idea, the more pressure you are going to place on your key-terms to have a narrow range of meanings, or better, no range at all.

Competing theologies clash on the battleground of word-studies, like the USA and USSR duking it out in Vietnam. Whole theological frameworks are poured into each occurrence of the term. The word is required to answer questions which the writer never imagined or had in mind.

Bible scholars at times show that under the pressure of theological needs they are willing to jettison most or all of the tenets of lexical semantics, the accepted principles of studying word meaning. In general, the hotter the battle, the worse the linguistic method!


Let’s take the word ‘justification’ as an example of this problem at work.

Most of the discussion goes on at the theological level. Does Christ have righteousness of his own? Is this imputed to the believer? Is justification purely declarative, or is it also transformative?  Are we being declared righteous, or declared ‘a community member’? etc etc. What is being discussed in all this controversy is the theological concept of justification.

But then the NT word ‘dikaioo‘ gets dragged in. What should happen at this point is we should calmly determine meaning by examining usage, looking at the co-texts, and other contexts such as contemporary usage, etc. This should enable us to build up a picture of the range of meanings the word ‘justification’ has in the NT.

But this is not what happens. What happens is that we don’t notice that we’ve moved from discussing the concept to discussing the word. Failing to make the distinction, we dump the whole weight of the debate on this poor unsuspecting word.

Having carpet bombed the linguistic territory with our theology, we expect it will then be cooperative! In particular, dikaioo is required to mean just one thing.

But NT words do not respond in this way to our political and polemic needs. They are not designed for the job. Justification in the NT can be shown to have quite a range. As a result, this justification ‘word study’ generates a great deal of heat, but not much light. In particularly it does not advance our understanding of the meaning of the text. And so it is not useful in the end for clarifying our theology. For good theology is the end goal, not the starting point, of biblical studies.

Whoever ends up winning the theological stoush, word-studies, like Vietnam, is the biggest loser.

Also, the debate about justification will be unlikely to move forward until a distinction is made between word and concept, and people start asking ‘what does the word mean this time?’ Then perhaps we can start to rebuild a biblical concept of justification – as a theological idea – from the ground up, based on the solid foundation of a calm reading of the texts. This may end up being identical to Luther’s doctrine – or not. We won’t know until we get some linguistic discipline into the process!

Tomorrow: Leon Morris’s word studies – a critique

  1. Mike Wells says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    I liked this

    “It takes crystal clarity about what a word is, and what a referent is, to avoid falling into this error. That clarity would make us ask over and over, ‘What does this word mean here, this time?’ And this is the clarity which James Barr demonstrated is lacking in so much modern bible scholarship.”

    See for example the mixing and jumping around between abstract theological concept and linguistics in Peter Bolt’s (or lionel Windsor’s) critique of John Dickson’s book “Hearing her voice”.

    John is doing exactly what you are saying

    “what does that word ‘teach’ mean here.
    Looking at the book. Looking at the pastorals. Looking at Paul’s usage.

    Peter and lionel just chuck out a “well we all know what the concept ‘teach’ means, it is a relational term about authority”

    i think it might be time we all went back and read James Barr again

  2. I like, I like! Just to add something to the discussion of Dickson and the rejoinders. I have not heard much talk about the differences within the “pastorals”. We need to be careful/aware not to lump them together in discussions regarding words. That is, we require some nuance between the Cretan context (Titus 1) and Ephesian context (1 and 2 Timothy), which I presume are worlds apart!

    • Jonathan says:

      Interesting point Brian, thanks for your comment. It certainly is possible for Paul to use a word in different ways on different occasions, especially if there’s a time or geographical gap involved.

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