Posts Tagged ‘lexical semantics’


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.

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

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

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.

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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

Students encountering the principles of modern linguistics for the first time can find it all a bit bewildering: ‘If words don’t have a core meaning from the origin, if their meaning is flexible and arbitrary, then does any word mean anything at all?’ All this talk about fluid-like meaning can make word meaning sound infinitely fluid. Do all words mean everything and nothing, then?

No, they don’t. Yes, words do mean something. Each term has its particular, unique meaning potential that no other term matches.

As we said in an earlier post,

This is not to say that words can mean anything. There are a range of meanings that any given word is capable of ‘soaking up’ – for other meanings, a different word is needed. There are things which the word ‘Onesimus’ cannot mean, no matter where it is placed.

But if we can’t say a word means a definite thing, then how can we describe its meaning? How can we talk about it in a way that sets it apart from other words’ meanings?

Linguists talk about the range of meanings each word can have. The academic term for this is semantic range. Each word has a number of things it can mean, and it doesn’t mean anything outside this range. Semantic range, then, is a bit like a mathematical set, so we will call this concept a ‘meaning-set’. Meaning-set is the set of meanings any one word can have.

This advantage of this idea of meaning sets over the traditional idea of word-definitions is that it recognises that words in the abstract have meaning-potential, not definite meaning.

Meaning sets can be constructed inductively, by gathering up all the meanings a word has in actual usage, and expressing them together. They can be represented as in the following example:

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Meaning sets should not be confused with fields of meaning. A field of meaning is a unified area of meaning which is created by a cluster of buddy-words which like to hang out together. ‘Dental devices’ would be a field of meaning, indicated by a range of words like ‘drill’, ‘filling’, ‘braces’, ‘plate’ etc. A meaning-set is not so unified: it is the range of possible meanings one word could have.  These meanings may be vastly different from each other. The meaning-set for ‘plate’, diagrammatised above, shows a fairly wide range of possible meanings. This difference is difficult to grasp at first, but is pretty important: fields of meaning are inhabited only by words, whereas meaning-sets are inhabited by meanings or concepts, things in the real world.

Something worth knowing about meaning-sets is that they can overlap. It’s like mathematical sets. The set of blue-eyed people in my church overlaps with the set of girls in my church: there are blue-eyed girls there. In a similar way the range of meanings for ‘chair’ overlaps with the range for ‘seat’. Their meaning-sets are not identical, but have common elements in them. There are chairs that are seats.

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This overlapping gives rise to the use of words as synonyms. This is where words are used interchangeably, like ‘human’ and ‘person’, or ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. There are no perfect synonyms: no two words are completely interchangeable in every situation. Because no two words have identical meaning-sets. But there are rough synonyms. ‘Chair’ and ‘seat’ are rough synonyms. Identifying synonyms is important for establishing word-meaning.

Another thing to be aware of is that the meaning-set of a word will change over time, as new meanings come to be included, and old ones drop off. Not many people use ‘plate’ to mean ‘silver-coated household items’ any more. This meaning is fading out. The meaning ‘car registration signs’ is a modern addition. So a meaning-set is like a snapshot of usage: it describes a word at a particular time in its history. This reflects the flexibility which all words possess.

Meaning sets not only describe the range of possible meanings a word can have – they also proscribe all other meanings. The word ‘chair’ is not used to mean anything else outside the set. It cannot mean the same as ‘table’. We could say the word ‘chair’ is not available to express these other meanings.

Word-meaning, then, is not definite, in the sense that it cannot be defined precisely in the abstract. (This is the problem James Barr identified in TDNT: it was trying to define words in abstraction.) But word-meaning is limited. Each word has its own range, its own meaning set. The rest of the work of determining word-meaning more precisely, is done by context. Only in a context does a word take on a definite meaning.

Tomorrow: The problem of theology in word studies


Words have their meaning influenced by the other words they are found with, their ‘co-text.’ This is especially true of the ‘sense’ conveyed by a word, as we have seen. The sense of a word is usually closely related to the sense of other words in the immediate context.

For many words, a brief study of their co-text will reveal that they have preferred partners, other words which they like to hang out with. These ‘buddy words’ have a widespread influence on each others’ meaning, because they so often form part of each other’s context. When a group of words hangs together regularly like this, they create an area or domain of meaning.

Linguists called these areas of meaning semantic domains or semantic fields. A semantic field is an area of meaning created by a group of buddy words, words which are often found together. We will call these fields of meaning. The meaning in these fields is highly unified: fields of meaning are about something.

Think knife, fork, spoon, plate, cup. These words together create a semantic domain in the area of ‘dinner-table equipment.’ We know what ‘plate’ means here because the other words help locate it in this field of meaning. Elsewhere, ‘plate’ could mean something very different – it might also belong in fields of meaning regarding dentistry or geology, or baseball. Generally the context will make this clear, controlling word meaning without the need for explanation. Buddy words will create a field of meaning in which ‘plate’ will be heard rightly. The word ‘oil’, when accompanied by words like ‘fry’, ‘pan’ and ‘cook’ will be heard differently from ‘oil’ in a context of ‘check’, ‘sump, and ‘bonnet’.

Words which share a field of meaning flavour each other. Meaning – being a liquid kind of thing – soaks from one word into the other, like flavours mixing in a slow-cooked dish.  And so all the buddy words gain meaning from the whole field. This is especially true of  ‘sense’, that most flexible component of word-meaning which ‘bleeds’ its flavour more readily (see previous post on ‘sense’). This bleeding can even happen when the other words in the field are not present in the immediate context. If the field of meaning is well-enough established, the writer can draw a word from that field, the other words kind of hovering there in the background, unseen, influencing the meaning.

Recognising fields of meaning can be of great help in determining word-meaning, especially for grasping the ‘sense’ of the word. So they’re worth looking out for. It is a worry that Bible scholars often neglect this important context when doing their word studies. The concept has been around for some decades now, it’s time our scholars caught up.

The way to discover meaning-fields is inductively, by noticing buddy words. Which words often hang out together? We can recognise these fields, then, by paying attention to immediate context.



In the NT there is a cluster of buddy words relating to the Holy Spirit, which are found together over and over again. They are Spirit, power, glory, life, and resurrection (pneuma, dynamis, doxa,  zoe, egeiro and anastasis – for examples see Eph. 3:16; 1Cor. 15:43-45; 2Cor. 3:18; Romans 6:4).

This nexus of terms pervades the NT, especially in the writings of Paul. The terms are sometimes used as synonyms, in the sense that they have significant overlap in meaning. e.g. Luke 1:17 ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’, or Luke 1:35 ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ Again, 1Peter. 4:14 ‘If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.’

These are obvious examples of overlap in meaning, but in fact, because of the frequency with which these terms are found together, they are continually influencing each others’ meaning. For Paul in particular, these terms comprise a kind of network, a field of meaning, to do with the eschatological role of the Spirit.

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This means that when one of the terms is used, generally its meaning is flavoured by the other words in the ‘Spirit’ field. They go together in Paul’s thinking. This is because for Paul, the Spirit is the one who brings in a new world order in which death and dishonour and weakness are replaced by resurrection into a new, divine life, filled with glorious energy. These are the characteristics of the new life in the Spirit.

So when Paul says ‘power’, ‘glory’, ‘life’, or ‘raised’, he is usually thinking of the eschatological Spirit.

Let’s look at one of the verses cited above as examples of this semantic field: Romans 6:4.

…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul is holding back the term Spirit until chapter 8, for literary purposes: he wants it to make a big impact there. Here in ch.6  he has Christ raised ‘by the glory of the Father.’ But in ch.8:11, the Father raised Jesus and will raise us ‘by his Spirit’. Clearly ‘by his Spirit’ and ‘by the glory of the Father’ are synonymous phrases, two ways of saying the same thing. The Spirit can be called ‘the glory’.

But there’s more of this in Romans 6:4: Jesus died and rose ‘so that we might walk in newness of life.’ In Romans 8:4 we get the same idea, but this time God condemned his Son so that we could ‘walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ ‘Walking in newness of life’ equates to ‘walking according to the Spirit.’ ‘Newness of life’ is another way of talking about the Spirit, for ‘the Spirit is life’ (8:10).

So Paul in Romans 6 introduces these important motifs about the Spirit’s work in advance, preparing us for the tour-de-force of chapter 8 where it seems like the Spirit explodes onto the stage. Paul can do this because he has a whole cluster of terms to draw on which belong in the same semantic field as ‘Spirit’.

QUESTION: How might an awareness of this semantic domain affect our reading of, for example, Romans 1:16?

‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…’


Tomorrow: meaning sets

For Keen Beans Only

Here’s a list, for those who want to see the details, of the other places these words hang out together.

1Cor. 15:43 It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a Spiritual body.

Mat. 24:30 ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.

Luke 1:17 …in the spirit and power of Elijah,

Luke 1:35 The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you

Luke 4:14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit

John 5:21 Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life

John 5:29 to the resurrection of life

John 6:63 It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.

John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;

Acts 2:32 This Jesus, God raised up…33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit

Acts 3:15 …you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead

Acts 4:33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,

Acts 7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God

Acts 10:38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,

Acts 23:8 The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit.

Rom. 1:3 declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,

Rom. 6:8 that we will also live with him.  9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead

Rom. 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free…

Rom. 8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Rom. 8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Rom. 9:17 “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you”

Rom. 15:13 by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rom. 15:19 by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.

1 Cor. 2:4 with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,

1 Cor. 6:14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

1 Cor. 15:21 the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

1Cor. 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

2 Cor. 3:6 for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2Cor. 3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

2 Cor. 5:15 that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

Gal. 3:5 does God supply you with the Spirit and work powerful miracles among you

Gal. 6:8 if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Eph. 1:20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead

Eph. 2:5 made us alive together with Christ…  6 and raised us

Eph. 3:16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,

Phil. 3:10 the power of his resurrection

Phil. 3:21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him

Col. 1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,

Col. 2:12 raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Col. 3:4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

1Th. 1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit

2Tim. 1:7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a Spirit of power

Heb. 2:4  while God added his testimony by  signs and wonders and various powerful miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit,

Heb. 11:19 …that God is powerful enough even to raise someone from the dead

1 Pet. 1:21 God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory,

1 Pet. 3:21 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

1Pet. 4:14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Rev. 4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,

Rev. 7:12 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever

Rev. 11:11 But after the three and a half days, the spirit of life from God entered them

Rev. 15:8 8 and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power,

Rev. 19:1 Salvation and glory and power to our God

Quite a lot of them, aren’t there!

We have seen that ‘situational context’ is a primary context for determining word meaning. One implication of this is that cultural issues will affect how a word is ‘heard’. Where I come from, the word ‘poker machine’ or ‘pokies’ (always in the plural!) brings up images of enjoyable afternoons spent testing your luck – or of problem gamblers sitting in rows in a club, depending on the viewpoint of the hearer. The mere word may bring with it feelings of excitement and longing, or of disgust and anger. ‘Social context’ provides words with a great deal of their meaning.

And yet the basic idea, ‘pokies’, remains constant regardless of social setting. Linguists say that words convey meaning of two sorts. First there is the basic thing the word refers to: the ‘referent’. There are objects called poker machines, and the word ‘pokies’ refers to them. Many words have this ‘naming’ function: they label some thing in the world outside the page.

The other thing words convey is ‘sense’, the mental content called up by the symbol. This is sometimes called the ‘connotation’. Words do not just label, they function to create a response in the hearer, perhaps even an emotional response. The word ‘police’ does not merely refer to a certain social role or institution. It also carries with it, or perhaps creates where it goes, reactions: whether feelings of fear, guilt, resentment, safety, trust or whatever. Likewise the word ‘Bible’.

Is this mental content a response to the word, or to the thing the word refers to (the referent)? Probably a bit of both. The images and feelings evoked by the word ‘pokies’ are probably evoked largely by the referent: the machines themselves, and the things people do with them. But the responses provoked by the word ‘one-armed-bandit’ certainly include a reaction to the word itself!

In other words, we have three things: word, referent and sense – sign, thing pointed to, and associated connotations. These three are inter-connected. Referent and sense together make up the meaning of the word.

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The sense created by a word is usually closely related to the sense of other words in the immediate context. Consider the following sentences.

1. The young police officer was a hero who gave his life in the service his community.

2. Anti-corruption probe finds police ‘culture of contempt’.

The sense or mental content evoked by the word ‘police’ in each sentence is radically different. The difference comes from the sense of the sentence in which it is located. This sense is part of the meaning which ‘flows’ into words from their neighbours.

Sense, even more than referent, is highly influenced by social setting, or situational context. The word ‘police’ will convey a different sense depending on which part of your city you come from, your age, your socio-economic status and a host of other social factors. This ‘sense’ aspect of word meaning, then, is extremely variable and indeed unpredictable. It builds an instability into language which should banish any idea of pinning down word-meaning definitively. All meanings are, at least partly, local and temporary.

More than anything else does, the awareness that words convey ‘sense’ helps us see that word meaning is complex, not simple, and variable, not fixed. It pushes us to ask not ‘What does this word mean?’ but ‘What sorts of thing does this word mean to them?



In Isaiah 42:1-4, the word ‘judgement’ (Hebrew mishpat) occurs three times. Does this term have a positive or a negative sense here?

1      Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth judgement to the nations.

3      a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth judgement.
4     He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established judgement in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Here the context is of delight, mercy, care for the weak, and faithfulness. The peoples long for the servant’s arrival. The sense in this passage is entirely positive, and this sense colours the term ‘judgement’. Here judgement is seen as something good which the earth needs and waits for. Judgement means protecting the weak. The business of judgment is being viewed from the point of view of those who suffer injustice. Judgement here is not primarily an event, but a state of affairs. It is best translated here with the word ‘justice’.

This positive sense is an important part of the word’s meaning. By judgement, Isaiah means that the Servant will set things to rights. In fact ‘judgement’  (mishpat) always carries a positive sense in Isaiah.

Tomorrow: buddy words

Another sort of context that is vital for establishing word meaning is the social or ‘situational’ context.  We can state the principle like this:

What a word means to a particular community at a particular time and place – that is its meaning.

On the other hand, word meanings change over time and space, and so current usage is what we are looking for. Current, that is for the original setting in which the word was written or spoken.

This means checking against contemporary writing, especially those from the same culture or social setting as your author. Luke will help you determine word meanings in Paul – they were mates.

This truth undermines the traditional view that words have a ‘core meaning’ which can be accessed by studying their origins. The study of origins, called etymology, has in the past been a primary approach to determining meaning. The idea of etymology is that words are like onions, and over time they grow new outer layers. But if you peel back all those superficial layers, eventually you get to the core of the word, the essence of it, the word itself. You find out what that word is really all about. But etymology is another manifestation of the idea that words have a meaning in isolation, which they carry with them from place to place. As we have seen, this idea is no longer accepted by linguists. Words are flexible symbols, sponges that soak up and later let go of meaning – what they meant at one time does not necessarily carry over to a different time.

Take as an example the word nice. It comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. In Middle English (around 1000 AD) ‘nice’ meant foolish or wanton. By the c.18th it meant exacting, precise or fastidious. Now it means – well, you know what it means now. The point is that the meaning of ‘nice’ has not been determined by its origins for many centuries now. There is no core meaning preserved over the aeons.

For many words, usage has changed less over time, and retained something closer to the meaning implied by the word’s root or origin. But even in these cases, it is usage that determines the meaning, not etymology. A word’s origin may shed light on current usage, but it is a most unreliable guide to word meaning.

To return to James Barr’s demolition job on TDNT, he successfully critiqued it for treating words as though they have a ‘core’ or ‘fundamental’ meaning which endures over time. I.e. the work was based on now-discredited linguistic assumptions about etymology.

In spite of the widespread acceptance that etymology does not control meaning, it is still very common to hear Bible teachers speak of the ‘core’ meaning of a word, or speak of a word’s origins as giving the ‘inside story’ of what the word is really trying to get at.


Let’s take as an example John Stott’s definition of the word ‘redemption’ in the NT, from his The Cross of Christ.

For at its most basic to ‘redeem’ is to buy back. …And ransom is the correct word to use [for this]. The Greek words lytroo and apolutrosis are derived from lytron (‘a ransom’ or ‘price of release’) which was almost a technical term in the ancient world for the purchase of …a slave. p.205

Notice the two main features of the etymological fallacy here:

  • the idea of a ‘most basic’ or core meaning inherent in a word, which underlies all others, and which a word retains long-term
  • definition based on derivation or the origin of the word: i.e. on etymology

Stott claims ‘ransom’ is the correct meaning of ‘redemption’, since the word’s etymology points that way. His argument is invalid due to the fallacy embedded in his methodology. He has ignored the importance of ‘situational context’,  and so not searched for the current usage. As a result he has not shown that ‘redemption’ meant ‘ransom price’ to the community of the early church, in the c.1st A.D. (Whether it did or not is another question, the point is he hasn’t proved his claim.)


Words are not trying to ‘get at’ anything. They have no intentions. Words are just signs which point wherever we aim them. And then when we reposition them, they point somewhere different. Words are not like onions, they have no inside: words are all external, what they mean on the surface is what they mean.

This is quite liberating for the ordinary Bible reader. All that historical background knowledge that language scholars have access to and you don’t, it doesn’t actually help that much in determining word meaning. In fact it may point in the wrong direction and mislead.  There are no secrets to be revealed about words. They have no hidden, inner meanings. The question is, how does this community use this word? And you’ve got access to the primary ‘social context’ for the NT writers: you can check other writings from the very same community, written in the same generation. They’re in the New Testament!

Tomorrow: Sacred texts

Acknowledging the primacy of context enables us to define ‘word’ as follows:

Words are arbitrary, flexible symbols.

Let’s unpack that definition, make sure we understand it.

Symbol: words are signs that point to real things in the world. They don’t have much reality themselves, they are just symbols. Words are not the same as the things they refer to. The word ‘Mum’ is not actually my mother, though I use it to indicate her.

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This might seem obvious, but it gets tricky in the area of abstract things like ideas and concepts. Even when a word refers to an abstract thing like a concept, the word is still not the same thing as the concept it refers to. Although the concept (say, ‘salvation’) is abstract, it is still a real thing with an objective existence. Salvation is a thing that exists in the real world – it is there whether we agree or not. The word ‘salvation’ is not that concept: it is just a symbol indicating the idea. It only exists because we agree to use that nine-letter symbol. Confusion between word and concept is especially common with abstract concepts and ideas. Theology is a discipline which is full of abstract ideas, and so is an area where this confusion is particularly troublesome. Theologians and bible scholars are often not sure whether they are talking about the concept, or just the word that indicates it. This causes a lot of trouble, and a lot of bad scholarship.

Arbitrary: If ten people each had to make a signboard pointing to the capital city, they would all come up with different designs. There is no correct sign: sign designs are ‘arbitrary’. Words are like that too. You say pig, he says swine, they say hog. All refer to the same beast. None is right or wrong: nor can it be, for signs or symbols are arbitrary. There is no necessary connection between the sign and the thing: they are only connected because we agree that for us, they are.

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Flexible: Because the connection between word and thing referred to is an arbitrary and not a necessary one, multiple and various connections can be made. Even new connections: ‘sick’ now means things it did not mean in the past. Words are reusable and flexible. They are noses of wax, ready to be bent in any direction. Just as the one signboard can be reused in different locations, so words can be recycled, used to mean more than one thing (new meanings normally develop over time, in an unplanned way – you probably can’t invent a new meaning for a word and make it stick!).

To return to an earlier image: a sponge can absorb different liquids, and likewise a word is a symbol which can be filled with different meanings depending on where it is placed.

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The sponge analogy is limited: words are not infinitely flexible at any given time. There is a range of meanings that any one word is capable of ‘soaking up’ – for other meanings, a different word is needed. But over time, word meaning can change radically (think of what ‘mouse’ now means!).

Let’s say it again:

Words are arbitrary, flexible symbols.

Modern Bible students have been very influenced by a massive, multi-volume German work called Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). It was a collaborative effort by many of the best scholars of the era. TDNT was set out like a dictionary (or lexicon) with entries about words, arranged in alphabetical order.

However, in the 1960s, James Barr launched a now-famous critique of TDNT. He pointed out that it failed to distinguish between word and concept. Were the entries in TDNT describing words, or describing theological ideas? TDNT never made this clear, and in reality it seemed to think it was doing both at the same time. It tended to comment on broad meanings of a word from its various occurrences. While appearing to be a linguistic study, it was often building up theological concepts – a different thing. In other words, TDNT had failed to realise what words actually are: that they are arbitrary symbols, and not the things themselves.

Barr said this confusion was leading to an error he called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’. This is where the sum of all possible meanings for a word are ‘dumped’ on each individual occurrence of it (Barr 1961, 218). This practice obscures the word’s specific meaning in any given location, and ignores the role of context. It ends up equating the word with the theological construct or concept it is connected with. TDNT had failed to allow for the flexible nature of word-symbols.

The substance of Barr’s critique was that TDNT has a fundamental methodological confusion built into its deep structure: a linguistic error of gigantic proportions. Bible scholars versed in linguistics now tend to give TDNT a wide berth.

Tomorrow: community usage

From what we have said already about how words work, we can state these principles:

1. Meaning is not inherent in a word, but is given to the word by social conventions (usage).

2. Meaning is not fixed in a word, but is largely determined by a word’s interaction with its surroundings (context).

This second principle raises a question: if surroundings influence word meaning so much, which surroundings? Each time a word is used, it inhabits more than one context. Which ones are the most important?

Here the idea of contextual circles is helpful. The rule is: the more immediate the context, the more influence is has. So the sentence is a primary context. Then the paragraph, the chapter, the book, the genre, and so on. We can represent this as a series of concentric circles:

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A word will ‘absorb’ meaning from each of these co-texts, but the sentence will give it the most meaning, then the paragraph and so on. The genre will also provide meaning, but in more of a ‘big-picture’ way: more distantly and with less detail.

This means that these contextual circles must be considered when assessing word meaning.  You won’t know what the word means this time until you know what the passage is about. However, this methodology has been not been well understood or applied by bible scholars when they do word studies. Often, word-meanings are ‘imported’ and foisted upon a passage which is really about something different. This common practice distorts the Scriptures.

Tomorrow: what are words anyway?