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Mars Hill Apologetic Discussions
Jason BeDuhn's Fourth Reply to Robert Hommel
Much of the stalemate in our discussion has been over the supposed distinction between qualitative and indefinite nouns, and specifically over the appropriateness of an indefinite article in John 1:1c. In his latest message, Mr. Hommel devotes considerable space to a discussion of "count" vs. "mass" nouns. He says:
ROBERT: I think that mass nouns fairly clearly exhibit the qualitative semantic force in equative phrases. Mass nouns exist in both English and Greek, and I think the examples we considered in our previous posts establish rather clearly that mass nouns are not grammatically or semantically identical with indefinite nouns. In fact, mass nouns cannot be grammatically indefinitized. . . . Mass nouns demonstrate fairly conclusively that qualitativeness exists as a grammatical category - mass nouns cannot be indefinitized and do not exhibit the sense of definite nouns. . . . I'm sorry, but I simply do not see how qualitativeness is indistinguishable from indefiniteness when we consider mass nouns. One cannot take a mass term and grammatically make it "a" something.
Since THEOS is not a "mass" noun, this whole line of argument has only indirect relevance for our discussion. It has only an indirect bearing for him because he wants to establish the English recognition of a distinct qualitative noun, one that is used without either a definite or an indefinite article. Be that as it may, what Mr. Hommel says about "mass" nouns not being indefinites (because in English we don't use the indefinite article with a "mass" noun) is true IN ENGLISH, but not in Greek. Mass nouns can and are grammatically indefinitized in Greek, that is, written without the definite article. I have tried repeatedly to make this point, and it seems to be a fundamental disconnect in our discussion. When the New Testament authors were speaking and writing, they were speaking and writing Greek, not English. English has definite nouns, indefinite nouns, and nouns that have neither the definite nor the indefinite article, because they are non-count ("mass" or substance) nouns (such as "pewter"). Greek, however, has simply definite nouns and non-definite nouns. Definite nouns have the definite article generally (except in specific constructions) when they are in the nominative or accusative cases, but do not require it in the genitive and dative cases (again, except in specific constructions that call for it). All Greek non-definite nouns, be they count or non-count, have no article, because Greek does not have an indefinite article. But since English does, it must be added when Greek non-definites are translated into English. Because English does not use the indefinite article with mass or substance nouns, Greek "mass" indefinites do not have the indefinite article added when translated into English. Greek "count" indefinites, on the other hand, do have the indefinite article added when translated into English.
Since THEOS is a count noun, not a mass noun, it should have the indefinite article added when translated into English. Since all of the nouns in John 1:1b-c are count nouns, Mr. Hommel's lengthy discussion of the handling of "mass" nouns in English has no direct bearing on the passage we are discussing. Even if we acknowledge a "qualitative" mass noun in Greek and accept that such a noun should usually be translated as an English mass known (and hence without the indefinite article), we have not advanced the discussion of THEOS in John 1:1c at all, because it is not a "mass" noun and so should, like other indefinite count nouns, be translated with the English indefinite article. Mr. Hommel, showing that he is already aware of the fact that in Greek the "indefinite" category includes both the indefinite and qualitative forces that we can distinguish in English, says:
ROBERT: If you conclude that all nouns without the article in Greek are indefinite, you're right - but you've also begged the question. Why is it not permissible for a Greek speaker to say "You are prophet," or "You are Samaritan."
In effect, this IS how they spoke in Greek, because Greek does not have an indefinite article. But this is not how we speak in English. So we are not going to start writing English sentences that look like this, are we? The job of the translator is to convert the Greek into an accurate and grammatically correct form of English. I know you know that, so I am not sure whether I'm supposed to take this seriously as an attempted justification of writing John 1:1c without the indefinite article. Or am I missing something? Are you making a case that ALL Greek non-definites are qualitative? But I have already shown in a previous posting that such is not true (the exceptions to Harner).
ROBERT: The distinction between indefinites and qualitatives may be blurred in some grammars - but they acknowledge the force exists and that Greek can express that meaning.
The point I have been making in this exchange is that Harner's distinct "qualitative" noun constructions are grammatically indistinguishable from indefinite nouns, and we must come to terms with how Greek semantic categories may be organized differently than English ones. But in fairness to Mr. Hommel, there is nothing wrong with "unpacking" this single Greek grammatical category into what we in English consider distinct semantic functions, with more-or-less confidence that we are understanding what the Greek means, depending on the specific case. In the particular instance of John 1:1c, I have said repeatedly that Harner's qualitiative translation "The Word was divine" is an acceptable translation, as accurate a reflection of the original Greek as "The Word was a god." But contrary to Mr. Hommel, I do not go on from that to somehow limit the meaning of that "qualitative" description (technically, a noun-complement) of "the Word." Rather than be consistent with the qualitative translation he has so ably argued for, Mr. Hommel resorts to a translation that would not be understood qualitatively by a reader without some sort of commentary.
So it seems to me that we don't get very far by comparing John 1:1c to "mass" nouns, because THEOS is not a mass noun, nor by comparing it to out-dated, 18th & 19th century English or poetic affectations of classical speech (such as "John is man," rather than the contemporary "John is a man." Since these two comparisons are the basis for Mr. Hommel's preference to omit the article in John 1:1c, I don't think his preference is very well justified. And even if we rolled English back to earlier style, and were comfortable with sentences like "John is man," is that any different in meaning from a predicate adjective? Is there any difference in John 1:1c between "the Word was deity" and "the Word was divine"?
ROBERT: I submit that the grammar of a qualitative PN does nothing
more or less than ascribe its attributes, qualities, or characteristics to the
subject. The grammar does not limit this attribution in any way. In the English
example you gave before, if you say, "the jar is pewter," the grammar does
not place limits on how pure the pewter is, or which parts of the jar may or
may not be pewter. The grammar simply equates "pewter" to "jar." Now, the
context in which you say this sentence may cause us - metaphysically - to
limit or refine our understanding of precisely how the jar is pewter. If you say,
for example, the jar has a porcelin base, we would interpret "the jar is pewter"
in a more limited fashion than the grammar alone would indicate. The point I'm
trying to make is that the grammar of "the jar is pewter" signifies the jar is
made out of pewter - all pewter and nothing but pewter. That's what the
sense of the mass noun "pewter" exudes in this sentence.
All of this is relevant if and only if THEOS is a substance, if John meant that the Word is constituted of god-stuff. Is this what you are arguing for? Would you maintain that every qualitative is a matter of a material, rather than a category or class? Only if you are prepared to do so will this line of argument serve your "complete and full measure" understanding of qualitative. But even if you are willing to go to this length, your own reasoning above shows that one can say "the jar is pewter" in contexts where the jar is MOSTLY pewter but also has some non-pewter features. The grammatical equation ("is") does not determine all of the semantics. It leaves the degree of equation open. We will come back to the question of "equation."
Even so, you are quite right that an accurate translation would give the equation straightforwardly. That is, we would still write "the jar is pewter" even if the situation or literary context told us that the jar has some non-pewter elements. (I adhere to a formal equivalence rather than a dynamic equivalence view of translation in this respect.) I have never suggested introducing some qualification or limitation into the equation of John 1:1c. I have only drawn attention to what is equated in the verse, and what is not. Here again, the accurate translation is simply a matter of conveying the equation, "The Word was a god," or even "The Word was god." To use your language, the Word is in full and complete measure what the class designation "god" signifies. It is crucial to note that the Word was in full and complete measure THEOS, not HO THEOS. Whether the first leads logically to the second is a matter of interpretation, not translation.
Mr. Hommel and I are exchanging charges of "limiting" the meaning of words and phrases, and I want to explain the difference between Mr. Hommel's claim that I am limiting the meaning of a qualitative THEOS -- a claim founded on theology -- and my claim that he is limiting the meaning of a qualitative THEOS (not to mention an indefinite THEOS) -- a claim founded on language, literary context, and cultural environment.
Mr. Hommel says that I unfairly "limit" the meaning of qualitative THEOS by not acknowledging that it means the full set of qualities carried by the term. But the term he means is apparently HO THEOS, not THEOS. It is precisely the point that THEOS is not interchangeable with HO THEOS. In what I have said about how Greek uses categories (indefinite) to establish character or quality, I have tried to find common ground with what Mr. Hommel means when he speaks about the full set of qualities. In Greek, a category such as "man," "ghost," "son," or "god" has implicit in it an understood definition of that term -- and what I mean by "understood" is: generally known to people within the culture where the Greek category is employed. So when John wrote "the Word was a god," or "The Word was god" (using phrasing more akin to what Mr. Hommel has been arguing for), he could count on his readers understanding the categorical definition he was invoking, and that is how he was able to communicate the inspiration he had about how to understand Jesus. Putting the Word into the "god" category was the first step in a lengthy explanation by which he further elaborated the basic definition, and sought to make clear in what sense the pre-incarnate being who became enfleshed as Jesus was in the "god" category rather than some other. John's audience had a working definition of a "god" that included things like superhuman knowledge and power, extremely long or immortal existence, transcendence of physical limitations, etc. To be in the "god" category, a being would be assumed to have the necessary qualities. But not every being in the "god" category would be assumed to be identical in every way, only the same in the critical qualities necessary to be considered a "god." In short, one could be THEOS without being HO THEOS, because the latter term refers to a specific being within the larger THEOS category.
This can get confusing for us in English because we use "God" as a name representing a specific being, as well as "god" as a generic category of being. Furthermore, Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, among others) are used to thinking of there being only one "god," and so "God" and "god" are interchangeable to them in most speach contexts. But the use of THEOS was different, both in Greek generally and even within the Bible, than the modern use of "god"/"God." And we need to attend to that fact.
So when Mr. Hommel says that I am "limiting" the meaning of THEOS by not simply equating it with HO THEOS, he is wrong. I am not limiting anything by refusing to make a term conform to later interpretations and doctrinal elaborations of it. Rather, he is limiting the meaning of THEOS by restricting it to a very narrow definition that the term does not have in its original context, and by excluding from the term's meaning the broader application it in fact had.
There is nothing wrong with Mr. Hommel's view that the Word as "deity" shares all of the qualities of "The Deity" AS AN INTERPRETATION of what John intends by what he says. Such an interpretation is possible; what John says does not preclude it. But the words John uses can yield other possible interpretations, too. And my basic argument has always been that translation should not artificially limit interpretation, but should stick to however open or closed the original Greek itself is in meaning. With the translations "The Word was divine" or "The Word was a god," or even "The Word was deity" you can get the same set of possible interpretations that the original Greek allows. But with "The Word was God," or "The Word was Deity" you have limited the meaning further than the Greek does.
There is a serious logical flaw in Mr. Hommel's argument for the Word having "all of the qualities" of God. To have literally ALL of the qualities and characteristics is to be identical, that is, to be one individual. "All of the qualities" is hyperbole on Mr. Hommel's part, I think. I would like to get past this impasse in our discussion, because the qualities at issue in John 1:1 are the CRITICAL qualities that establish membership in the "god" category. Mr. Hommel's interpretation works at putting the Word into the "god" category more properly and fully than any other being for which the term "god" might be employed in the Bible (angels, devil, humans, etc.). What Mr. Hommel wants to do by infusing a more narrow meaning into John 1:1c, John in fact does by spelling out the ways in which the Word/Jesus is "unique," closer and more intimate with God, and more central to his works, than any other being, divine or human. So John does it his way, and Mr. Hommel does it his -- and I prefer John's way, if you'll forgive me. I still think there is a shade of difference between where John ends up and where Mr. Hommel ends up with his more crude equation of the Word and HO THEOS, and I'm most comfortable staying with John on this. At the same time, I'm fairly sure that Mr. Hommel does not mean to make this crude equation, but has been led into arguing for it by a mistake about what needs to be defended in the meaning of John 1:1c.
ROBERT: Consider the examples you have given previously in which you argued that
qualitative nouns do not attribute all the qualities of the PN in full measure to
I think we have been misunderstanding each other, and I apologize for my part in the confusion. Qualitatives attribute a referenced set of qualities, the defining qualities of the PN. Now I still maintain that what those defining qualities may be in a given equation will shift, depending on the speaker's intention. So in metaphor, for example, not all the qualities of the PN in full measure are attributed to the subject, but we rely on the context of speech to clue us in to the implied set of qualities being referenced (that was all I meant with my example of "all is vapor"). But let's leave that aside, because we both agree that John 1:1c is not a metaphor. Let's just say that the referenced set of qualities is fixed, and that any equation of a subject with a qualitative PN is always to all the qualities in full measure associated with that PN. What is crucial to recognize here is that there is a big difference in meaning between sentences where the PN is an abstract category, like "dog," "man," or "god," and those where it is an individual, such as "Snoopy," "John," or "Jehovah." The latter three PNs are identifications, and, in fact, ARE NOT QUALITATIVES AT ALL. That is why I keep saying that there is no distinction between a categorical indefinite and a qualitative. To be "a dog" is to be, qualitatively, "dog." I fully concede that there may be a difference in emphasis between saying "a dog" and "dog." But the attributes invoked by either a categorical indefinite or a qualitatve is the same -- those of the category identified by the noun, with or without the indefinite article.
It is essential to recognize that the PN in John 1:1c is THEOS, an abstract noun standing for a category of being, not HO THEOS a specific being. That is what makes it a qualitative to begin with, if it is one. I completely agree with Mr. Hommel that the Word has the full measure of the defining qualities of THEOS as a category that John is employing. This is not NECESSARILY the same full set of qualities possessed by HO THEOS. HO THEOS certainly shares with the Word the defining set of THEOS qualities. That much is made clear by both HO THEOS and HO LOGOS being included in the THEOS category. It is possible, as an interpretation that follows a certain logic, that the Word shares not only the defining set of THEOS qualities, but also the full measure of qualities possessed by HO THEOS, but in that case the Word and God would be identical, the same individual. That's an interpretive road Mr. Hommel may wish to go down (even though it is not Nicene Trinitarianism), but it is not given in John 1:1 itself; it is developed out of John 1:1 by a process of selective reasoning -- in other words, by theological reflection.
ROBERT: We must distinguish the grammatical sense of a sentence from
the meaning we may derive from it. If we begin with the grammatical
foundation that a qualitative noun ascribes its qualities, attributes, and
characteristics to the subject, we may move into the realm of interpretation
and determine what the implication of that attribution is. We may determine
that we must limit the attribution of qualities in some fashion, based on the
context - but we ought to have good reasons for doing so. This approach, it
seems to me, is sound - both grammatically and interpretively. And I think
most Greek scholars would agree.
Yes, it is sound and most would agree. But you have argued before that semantically a qualitative inherently attributes the full and complete set of qualities, have you not? If this were true, then the language would PROHIBIT you from making this now concessive qualification of your position, that context may permit us to loosen up the attribution of qualities. I had said:
JB: In the linguistic sense, "quality" means the character, condition,
substance, status, etc. that something has. In any given case the exact
nuance, the exact set of qualities that are being tapped into, will vary. That
was the point I was trying to make by bringing up metaphor and simile -- NOT
that John 1:1 is a metaphor or simile, because I don't think that -- but that
both Greek and English are able to make metaphors and similes by
constructing parallelisms that invoke some, but not all of the qualities
possessed by the subject and object of the parallel.
To which you replied:
ROBERT: I generally agree with your first sentence. However, as soon as you
say "in any given case..." you have moved outside the realm of grammar and
are dealing with interpretation. The grammar does not determine which "set of
qualities" is meant; indeed, it cannot if we talking about a simple copulative
sentence, such as John 1:1c.
We do agree, I think, if we both are more careful and precise. Grammar "does not determine which set of qualities is meant." It does not determine either the full and complete set, nor a particular limited set. Grammar leaves this more defining determination open. So we must be sure that our translation likewise does not overdetermine "which set of qualities is meant." The traditional translation commits this error, the NWT translation does not, because all the grammar does is let us know that John is invoking a category, "god," of which he expects the reader to know -- to some degree -- the referenced set of defining qualities. We need to move to literary context and cultural environment to fill in what those defining qualities might be for John and his contemporaries. But finding that additional information out will not impact our translation, which should follow the Greek in only making the bare characterization of "god."
More to come . . .
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