What does that word mean? – 12: Leon Morris and word meanings

Posted: January 13, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics
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Now we’ve got the basics of lexical semantics under our belts, it’s time to test drive it (can you test drive something that’s under your belt?). Authorities John Lee and Moises Silva claim that bible scholars do a surprisingly bad job of employing these basic principles regarding context. Are they right?

As a test case, let’s take a look at the work of the foremost evangelical scholar of lexical semantics, Leon Morris. Morris’s work, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, though not recent, is still  in print and influential in evangelical circles. We will focus on chapter 1: Redemption. The substance of this chapter was reproduced by Morris in the New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, in 1996, and so may be said to represent his mature position on the subject. This is the study John Stott relied on in his book, The Cross of Christ (see previous post).

What sort of study is Morris attempting? In his Preface he states that he will be studying ‘certain key words which are crucial to the New Testament picture of the atonement’ (8). It seems this will be a word study then. However, we have to wonder at the ‘crucial to the atonement’ criterion. How does Morris know in advance which words are crucial? Is Morris proposing to do word-studies from the point of view of a pre-existing theological structure (‘the New Testament picture of the atonement’)? This is one of the things James Barr was so critical of in his demolition of TDNT (see previous posts). The danger is that theological considerations will foul the results of the linguistic study.

Morris embarks on his study commenting ‘we may well be surprised at the…rarity of its occurrence in the New Testament’ and ‘Christians found it a convenient term to use’ (11). There just one problem here: he hasn’t told us which term he’s talking about. No Greek word has yet been mentioned. It seems Morris has in mind to study the English word ‘redemption’. But this word does not occur in the NT, where all the words are Greek ones. How can we study this word in the NT then?

We can only conclude that Morris intends to study the concept of redemption in the NT. Though he said earlier that he wanted to study words. This is not a promising introduction: the confusion between concept and word, which Barr identified as a besetting sin of biblical theology, seems to be rearing its ugly head. We proceed unclear about which sort of study is being attempted. Are we doing linguistics, or theology? Sadly, this never gets clarified. 

Morris’s first sub-heading is ‘Etymological Considerations’ – an ominous place to start from the point of view of linguistics. Morris intends to start with word-origins. The greek word lutron is introduced as the ‘basic word in the word-group’. But Morris begins his etymological study not with lutron but with the word it is derived from: luw. Apparently even the origin of this parent-word contributes to the NT meaning of lutron. This is pushing pretty hard on etymology.

On the basis of word origins alone, Morris can already determine the word’s meaning, concluding ‘its meaning accordingly is ‘payment for loosing’ ‘(12). This is presented as a basic meaning inherent or from the word’s etymology apart from any contextual considerations – a notable prioritising of origins over usage. Other related (cognate) terms such as lutrosis are given the same ‘core’ meaning of ‘payment for loosing’ on the same basis – etymology.  This is the ‘intrinsic’ meaning of the word group. From here on Morris seems determined to stamp this single meaning on every occurrence of the term in Scripture.

Now that the basic meaning has been established, Morris can consider usage! Still under his heading of Etymology, Morris considers secular usage over a 300 year period, en masse. Here too he is looking to find a single meaning. The possibility that meaning may have varied with time is not considered – after all, we already know the basic meaning from the word’s origin!

After this, OT and then NT usage are similarly considered. But by now the definition is entrenched and suffers no alteration.

All usages are found to agree with the ‘basic’ meaning, involving payment, although sometimes usage is quite stubborn and uncooperative! There are times when usage requires a great deal of explaining before it can be seen that the ‘basic meaning’ is preserved in all cases. Lutron is often used for the payment to free slaves. But it is also used in a very different area: for general sacrificial offerings. For this sacrificial field of meaning, rather than consider the possibility of a different meaning, Morris manages to fit it into his etymological one. Here’s how he does it: worshippers are cast in the role of prisoners or slaves, and the offering is considered the ransom price for their freedom. Nice. There is no attempt to show that these ideas can be found in the context – it is enough that the practice can be massaged into harmony with the ‘core’ meaning. The possibility that usage here might contradict etymology is not seriously considered.

In this way, the idea that the lutron word-group could mean more than one thing – a basic tenet of linguistics –  is effectively ruled out in advance, by allowing etymology (‘the meaning at bottom’ [15]) to dominate and impose its stamp on meaning. In fact, Morris’s main interest in the rest of his study is in identifying hints of ‘cost” or ‘price’ in the word’s contexts. This near-obsessive insistence on a single meaning raises our suspicions – is there a theological agenda driving this? (see previous post)

Tomorrow: Leon Morris critique concluded


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