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In Defense of Word Studies


By Kenneth L. Brown

Plato proposed in his Cratylus that words are merely images of things and do not contain truth. In his dialogue between Socrates, Hermogenes and Cratylus, Plato ridiculed etymology and introduced the doctrine of the flux of words. This satire which makes individual words only arbitrary signs has come to be known as nominalism. It reduces the semantics of words to relativism and subjectivity dependent entirely on the context in which they are found. This viewpoint has set a climate out of which neo-orthodoxy and new evangelicals have sprung. The meaning of individual words becomes relative and changing. Fixed standards and definitions flows into a mixture of subjective meaning influenced by the changing tides of endless thought. The individual word depends upon the sentence for its meaning, rather than determining the meaning.

This dispute has been identified historically as a controversy between the Realists and the Nominalists. The one reckoned universal idea as preexistent in the mind of God and men (ante rem); the other has been considered as simple abstraction of the understanding from the objects of the senses (post rem). A nominalism approximating that of Plato has been erupting in Christendom through the father of neo-orthodoxy, Kierkegaard. Expressions of this subjectivity can be observed in many areas of doctrine. In the realm of philology, the Barthian concept of meaning and terms has been promoted by Barr in The Semantics of Biblical Language. Barr thinks that the truth can be found only in the larger linguistic complex or the sentence, rather than the smaller terms or words. He believes that words are not vessels which convey meaning, but must be understood only as relative to ideas contained in a broader expression.

This type of flexibility of meaning has introduced into the Christian world an attitude of uncertainty and a feeling of instability with regard to the Bible. It has produced an insecurity out of which has come a re-examination of the meaning of inspiration. But this point of view has not been confined only to the positions of neo-orthodoxy and new evangelicalism. The influence can be clearly seen in some of the more prominent institutions which train men for fundamental, Baptist ministries. The trend of these educational centers has been constantly toward a depreciation of the basic tools of word study. In some cases the result has been the entire elimination of required courses which deal with the language of the Bible. A revision and restructuring of curriculums does not necessarily raise a signal of caution and danger. But when the reason for such alterations rests upon a corresponding change in the value of the words of God, it places the doctrine of verbal inspiration in jeopardy. This has resulted in placing more importance on training to orientate the minister for sociological service rather than preparation for the knowledge and presentation of the Bible. The principles of “concept inspiration” (that is the ideas contained in sentences rather than the words are considered to be inspired) have eroded the unique view known as verbal inspiration.

Possession of the Word of God cannot be possible apart from the Words of God. The Words of God comprise the Word of God. The Lord Jesus Christ reminded the Father concerning the saints in John 17:6-8 when He said “…they have kept thy word,” …For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me." He said also in John 12:48, “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my Words hath one the judgeth him: the word that I have spoken…” Jesus again spoke in John 14:24, “He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear…” In John 15:3, 7 the Word again is called words, as is true in Acts 10:44. In Acts 5:20, 28 the words are doctrine. In 2 Peter 3: 2 the Scripture of the Old Testament is called the words and in John 10:18, 21, the commandment is associated with the words. There can indeed be no WORD OF GOD without the individual words and the words determine the meaning and the message of that WORD.

Let it be known that context is vitally important, and Greek and Hebrew syntax imperative to proper exegesis of the Scriptures. However, violent objection must be registered against the teaching fostered by Barr, and which is being presented by a number of fundamental Bible colleges and seminaries. Barr has erred drastically in eliminating the entire field of lexical studies. He is wrong in attempting to eliminate the philosophy which lies behind Kittel, Cremer, Thayer, Vincent, Robertson, Wuest, and in fact, nearly all contributions in word studies.

Either words have something of a permanent meaning, or they do not. If truth resides in the primitive element of written language, then there is room for etymology and profit in the study of Biblical terms. If, on the other hand, Barr should be correct, then only the concepts or ideas contain truth, and use independency of each word must be forfeited. This opens the door of potential chaos in relation to the doctrine of inspiration. This exposes the doctrine of verbal inspiration to unusual jeopardy and questions the supernatural selection of each word of Holy Writ by the Holy Spirit. Nominalism restricts the capacity for truth to the sentence only and forces submission of the individual words to the subjective analysis of a context in order to have meaning.

Proper word study of Bible terms must be justified if one believes verbal inspiration. This does not necessarily mean that all works in Word studies are correct, nor their conclusions inerrant. It does not always follow that all works dealing with roots and etymologies draw correct results. It does insist that the field of word study not only is a proper area from which to obtain truth, but even insists that verbal inspiration demands such a conclusion.

The following pamphlet was written in 1968 (based largely on notes that Dr. Brown used in his "Word Studies" courses in seminary beginning in 1961) and was published by the San Francisco Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1970s as part of a series addressing practical and theological issues.

Kenneth L. Brown

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