What does that word mean? 13 – Leon Morris and word meanings (concluded)

Posted: January 14, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics
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What is lost in Morris’s study is the all-important role of context. But Morris does not think context that important for this word-study. He quotes with approval B.B. Warfield on lutrew: “the only reason for this verb’s existence [was as] an unambiguous term which could convey with surety and without aid from the context…the express sense of ‘ransoming’.” (13,fn). On the basis of this c.19th linguistic opinion, Morris writes ‘when they chose to use lutron…it was because they wanted a term which expressed in itself, and not simply by inference from the context, the idea of release by payment…The very existence of this word-group is due to the desire to give precise expression to the concept of release by payment’ (12).

That gives the game away somewhat! All the study of usage (context) is here admitted to be unnecessary, since the word already has a fixed, stable, inherent, single meaning. There were some people, apparently, who wanted a word that could only mean one thing, and by looking at the word itself, we can see what it was they desired in their hearts: they desired to say ‘ransom’ with no ambiguity. So they built this word, and they made it so clear that its meaning was not able to be altered later afterwards. The meaning they intended for it at its birth controlled the word from then on.

This is of course pure fantasy. Morris here departs from pretty much all the principles of good linguistic scholarship described in the previous nine posts. These are extreme lengths to go to in his campaign to establish a single meaning of ‘payment’ for the word ‘redemption.’

Why is Morris so set on this meaning? It seems that perhaps we were right to suspect, back at the start, that he planned to do word-studies from the point of view of a pre-existing theological structure (”the NT picture of the atonement”).  For ‘payment’ as the meaning of ‘redemption’ is a controversial idea in modern theology, and the evangelical party upholds it strongly.  We might  be forgiven for wondering if the needs of theological controversy, rather than the canons of linguistics, have perhaps played the dominant role in this study. It reads very much like a ‘study’ in which the conclusions were pre-determined from the start: indeed the basic word-meaning is settled on the first page!

Morris intersperses theological comment throughout his study, making comments on ‘the NT’s view of redemption’ etc. We are never quite sure whether we are doing theology or word study. Sometimes he wanders away from words altogether, and spends a while on concepts pure and simple. At the end of one such wandering regarding the letter to the Hebrews, he sums up:

Thus from many directions we see a stress laid on the cost of our salvation, and this should be borne in mind in estimating the writer’s thought on redemption. Even when he is not using that exact term, he has the idea of cost that it denotes (p.40 – my italics).

Here it is clear that by ‘redemption’ Morris does not mean the word, but rather the theological concept which exists in the mind of the writer.

When occasionally Morris is confronted with other meanings for ‘redemption’ made explicit by the context, he simply adds them to the ‘intrinsic’ meaning. For Galatians 3:14, which links redemption to the gift of the Spirit, Morris comments:

It is wrong to separate the legal status…from the resultant life. The only redemption Paul knew was one in which the redeemed had the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in which they lived as those who had been adopted into the family of God (p.59).

The result of this adding is of course an accumulation of ideas, a complex and nuanced concept: in other words a theological structure. But the whole structure is seen to be contained in the word redemption. Barr warned about this tendency to load up words with a composite meaning resulting from adding up all its usages (his so-called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’). In this case Morris has developed a carefully shaped set of ideas, including causes and resulting effects, and even pastoral consequences: and all under the aegis of the word ‘redemption’. This is what Morris calls the word’s ‘full meaning.’ He is apparently not acquainted with the idea of ‘meaning sets’ (or semantic range – see post 9).

By the end, it is clear that Morris really is attempting to do theological and word study simultaneously. He is starting at both ends of the reading process simultaneously. Methodological muddle is built into the deep structure of the study.

In fairness to Morris, it is likely that he was not linguistically educated. He may well have been sincere in his efforts, and unaware that his methodology is flawed at almost every level. This is probably not a case of deliberate distortion, but more an example of how badly wrong bible scholarship can go under the pressure of theological controversy, when not underpinned by good reading practices.

Was it fair of us to expect Morris to employ the principles of modern linguistics? Was anyone talking about this stuff back in the 1960s?

Yes they were. The third edition of Morris’ book was published in 1965. James Barr’s  The Semantics of Biblical Language had exploded onto the biblical studies scene in 1961, four years earlier. It had caused a huge stir. It later provided much of the content of Don Carson’s popular book Exegetical Fallacies. Yet in the course of his study, Morris commits pretty much every linguistic sin in Barr’s book – not as accidental one-offs, but as deliberate and sustained policies. As we have noted, the substance of this chapter from The Apostolic Preaching was reproduced by Morris in the New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, in 1996, thirty five years later. Morris had every opportunity to read and learn from Barr’s work, yet he ignored it.

This unhappy assessment should not discourage ordinary bible readers: with basic linguistic principles such as the ones we’ve been learning regarding context, a bit of calm, and ideally the assistance of Bible software, ordinary readers can get a long way in finding out what words mean. And this will help us listen to the text.


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