There are fashions of the day in theology as well as in haute couture. Theological fashion, however, has implications which are more serious than any that may be involved in current modes of dress design; for theology belongs properly to the category of truth, which, in its essence, is not variable, whereas dress design is related to questions of adventitious adornment, which are governed by no fixed laws.
Fashion, whether theological or sartorial, is devoutly followed by the majority, who exalt it to an eminence of sacrosanct inviolability. The assailant of fashion, therefore, is viewed with distaste: he is roundly damned as a dangerous reactionary, accused of profanity, or dismissed as irresponsible and eccentric. Yet the Christian Church would be in a sorry state were it not for courageous individuals who, concerned that truth should prevail, by word and deed attacked the ecclesiasticism that was à la mode made in their day. This was so with the prophets of the Old Testament; preeminently with our Lord who made so uncompromising an assault upon the fashionable pharisaism by which he was surrounded; with Martin Luther and the other masters of the Reformation; with Wesley and Whitefield; with Wilber-force; with Kierkegaard. The lesson they teach us is that fashion so easily becomes a stronghold of error or a retreat for muddled thinking. Effective reaction becomes essential if truth and freedom are to survive. We need fashion-fighters in our day no less than in the past.
The appearance, therefore, of a fashion-fighter in the rarefied atmosphere of academic theology is a welcome portent. (Let us not forget that it is in this olympian realm that fashions are formulated and from which they filtrate into the lower world of the inexpert man-in-the-street.) Dr. James Barr, Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology in Edinburgh (more recently Princeton) is, perhaps, unlikely to become known as an iconoclast except in academic circles; but his book The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford University Press, 1961) is nonetheless an important contribution to fashion-fighting.
In this book he mounts a sustained critical attack on certain methods in the handling of the language, and more particularly the words, of the Bible which today are crowned with the aura of fashionability. It has become customary in the theological world to proclaim that there is a fundamental distinction between Greek and Hebrew thought—that the former is static, abstract, and analytical, while the latter is dynamic, concrete, and comprehensive—and that this distinction is inherent in the terminology of the two languages. Here we have an example of a theory which, having become fashionable, has come to be treated as a factual premise upon which to erect a dogmatic superstructure. Professor Barr charges its advocates with ignorance of genuine linguistic semantics, with making assumptions that are absurd, perverse, and comic, and with “arranging the material in a way which is certain to produce the predicted result.”
He strenuously opposes the assumption that the significance of a word may be determined by reference to its etymology and its supposed root-meaning, and contends that the past history of a word is no infallible guide to its meaning at any given time. “Entymology,” he says, “is not, and does not profess to be, a guide to the semantic value of words in their current usage, and such value has to be determined from the current usage and not from the derivation.” The etymology of a word is, in fact, “not a statement about its meaning but about its history.” Furthermore, “if we agreed that all the words we use should be interpreted from their entymological background and remote historical connections we should reduce language to an unintelligible chaos.” Indeed, he maintains that if the arguments favored by this school of interpretation “have any validity at all, you can make the scripture mean anything you like at all.”
After a critical examination of examples of this fashionable method of interpretation (in the course of which his Edinburgh colleague Professor T. F. Torrance comes in for some rough handling!) Dr. Barr turns his attention to Kittel’s encyclopedic Theological Word-Book of the New Testament, of which he rightly says that “no single work is perhaps more influential in the study of the New Testament today.” His censure of this composite lexicon, with its predilection for “concept history,” its strong Christocentric emphasis, and its conception of revelation as consisting in events in history rather than in ideas or propositions (so characteristic of the fashionable “biblical theology” of our time) cannot be expanded here. He demonstrates how illegitimate some of its basic claims and methods are, how inconsistently its principles are applied, and how far removed they are from the real science of linguistics.
The meaning of a text is to be sought not from the words of that text in isolation from each other, but from the words in combination. Both in interpretation and in translation it is the sentence—words in syntactical association with each other—that is of semantic significance. As Professor Barr says, the connection between biblical language and theology “must be made in the first place at the level of the larger linguistic complexes such as the sentences.” The new “orthodoxy,” scorning as it does the old orthodoxy with its classical doctrine of Scripture and “propositional” religion, has had to invent its own form of biblicism, and in doing so has substituted proof-words in the place of proof-texts. Well may Dr. Barr ask whether we are making progress! More generally, he contends that “what may be a good theological case is spoiled by bad linguistic arguments,” especially when it is “not supported by actual exegetical argument from texts which say things from which the general thesis could be supported.”
We must hope that this brave volume of a bonny Scots fighter will be studied and heeded in the halls of theological fashion.
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