Nov 3, 2021 • 16M

Some more sentences about words

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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In the wake of my post a few weeks ago about the ‘blunder in our Bible reading’, some of you asked some thoughtful questions about the value of word studies and word searches. The questions were so helpful, in fact, that I thought a few more sentences about words were in order …

I was suggesting, you may remember, that we have a habit of overusing and misusing word studies. Given that meaning is made in sentences (and only in sentences), we need to prioritise reading the sentences in front of us, and not chase words all over the Bible to see what connections we can make to our passage.

Hang on, said some thoughtful correspondents, is that the crying of a baby I hear that has been thrown out with the bathwater? Surely word studies are of some use! Are you trying to make us feel guilty every time we chase up a cross reference, or look at how a word is used in other places, or do a word search on all the uses of that word in the Bible?

In the comment thread, Callan asked whether it was reasonable (for example) to think that Paul’s use of the word ‘minister’ (diakonos) to describe himself in Eph 3:17 had some relation to the saints being equipped for the work of ‘ministry’ (diakonia) in Eph 4:12. Is it OK for us to see that connection and make something of it?

Given it’s part of the same discourse, very likely yes. As I pointed out in the original post, the closer two repeated words are to one another in a discourse the more we are likely to notice the repetition as readers and ponder whether the author is referring to the same thing, or ‘saying’ something through the repetition. That’s the key point—whether or not there is a connection is determined by what the author is doing in the sentences and in the discourse that is made up of those sentences, not through the cleverness of our Bible software. In this case, Callan is right I think—the activity the saints are being equipped for in 4:12 is part of the same mission that Paul has been appointed to in 3:17, and the repetition of the root diakon– helps us to notice that, along with the unfolding logic of the whole discourse of which 3:17 and 4:12 are part.

All the same, the mere fact of repetition doesn’t necessarily have any significance. I used the word ‘point’ twice in that last paragraph (‘pointed out’ and ‘key point’), without meaning anything by it.

What about when words and connections are a little further apart? As a case study, Callan points out that the words ‘Lord’, ‘visitation’, ‘compassion’ and ‘death’ are used in Zechariah’s song in Luke 1. When we come to Luke 7, we find Jesus described as the ‘Lord’ acting from ‘compassion’ to rescue a boy from ‘death’, and the people declaring in response that ‘God is visiting his people’. Is Luke wanting us to remember the song of Zechariah as we come to Luke 7? And does the repetition of these words alert us to this?

Again, it is pretty plausible to think that Luke is weaving this theme through his narrative, not only because we’ve noticed this striking repetition of words, but because that’s how narrative discourses work. Narratives usually make meaning not by presenting a logical argument but by stitching a story together in various ways—for example, by placing incidents in relation to each other, or by characters carrying forward a plot and developing or changing in the course of the narrative.  One of the common devices of narrative is to raise themes and ideas in the opening incidents of the story, and then return to them repeatedly as the story unfolds (e.g. think of the way that the overture to John’s Gospel wheels out so many of the themes and ideas that John returns to as he unfolds his story).

Is this happening in Luke 1 and 7? Very likely. And can word searches and word studies help us spot this? Of course. But so can thoughtful, alert reading. In fact, this is my litmus test as to whether I’m overusing word searches to draw connections between passages. Is this connection something that the author might expect a thoughtful, alert reader (without Bible software) to spot and appreciate? If not, then I’m almost certainly drawing too long a bow.

Another good question came from my good mate (and boss) Carl, who asked me whether it’s useful to chase up how words are being used in other places in order to get a feel for what they might mean in this sentence.

My answer to this is Yes, so long as we remember the difference between usage, modifiers and referents. (Oh of course, I hear you say. I’d never get those mixed up!) Here’s what I mean.

The various ways a word is used in different sentences (it’s ‘usage’) shows us the range of its meaning or semantic field. This is what a dictionary does for us—it looks at all the ways in which a particular word is used in the language (at the time the dictionary is written), and summarizes the various meanings that the word can have. If you look up the word ‘love’ in the dictionary you’ll find a range of meanings like ‘deep affection, romantic attachment, a great interest or pleasure in something, a friendly form of address or for ending a letter’ and so on. This reflects the different ways that people use the word ‘love’ to say things in English today.

In one sense, as we read different texts and use language ourselves, we are compiling a dictionary in our heads. We develop a mental map of what a word can mean, and then when we read a particular sentence we discern from the context which part of that semantic field is being used in this instance.

And so if we want to keep building the dictionary in our heads (especially the Greek dictionary, which is more rudimentary for most of us) by chasing down how words are used in different sentences, that’s an excellent thing! (Mind you, we should also make good use of the much broader usage research that the authors of dictionaries have done for us.)

So that’s usage (or word-meaning or semantic field).

The problem arises when we get confused between the usage or meaning of words, and the various modifiers and referents that a word has in particular sentences.

Let’s take the sentence, “God loves us unconditionally”:

  • There is the verb ‘to love’.

  • Then there are two referents attached to love—that is, two actual beings that the author wants to talk about, one of whom is doing the loving and the other who is being loved. ‘Love’ is connected with (or ‘refers’ to) these specific individuals (‘God’ and ‘us’).

  • We also have a modifier for ‘love’—the adverb ‘unconditionally’, which describes how the loving is being done.

Here is the obvious but vital point: neither the referents nor the modifier are part of the meaning of the word ‘love’. They don’t get attached to the word ‘love’, so that wherever love goes those referents or modifiers can go with it. That God is the subject of ‘love’ in this sentence, doesn’t mean that when I use the verb ‘love’ in another sentence somewhere else that God is still in the picture somehow. Ditto with ‘unconditionally’.

This is the blunder I was talking about in my post: using word searches and word studies to find referents or concepts from one passage and transfer them into another, simply because the two passages share a word—as if words are like wormholes in space through which meanings and implications can travel from one sentence to another.

There is one more helpful function of word studies worth mentioning. Word searches can obviously alert us to the various places in which the Bible talks about different subjects. When I was doing my PhD about the mutual word ministry (or ‘edifying speech’) of the Christian community, a word search was a good place to start in chasing down the various passages that might have something to say on that subject.

Here’s the interesting thing though—because we say things in sentences and not just with words, we are very capable of talking about the same subject using many different words. And this is the case with ‘edifying speech’ in the New Testament. There are more than 20 different key words used to talk about various kinds of one-another speech, utilized in all sorts of different ways to say valuable things about what that speech was like, what it was for, and so on.

A word search on ‘speech’ or ‘one-another’ or ‘encouragement’ was a good place to start my research, but not to finish. To really cover the cases, I needed to read the whole New Testament carefully and find all kinds of places where the phenomenon I was researching was discussed—sometimes using words I hadn’t expected or thought to search for.

Well, hopefully the baby has been rescued, and is now splashing in some nice, fresh, clean bathwater. Word studies can be useful and enlightening. But like all babies, they need to be handled with care.


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