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Qualitative Nouns -
Emphasis or Meaning
A Response to Jehovah's Witness Apologists on Theos in John 1:1c
|In many discussions with Jehovah's Witnesses on the subject
of John 1:1, Witnesses have challenged the idea that theos in the last
clause is purely qualitative (see here and
here for more details). They
maintain that while nouns may exhibit a "qualitative emphasis"
in various contexts, nouns remain nouns and thus do not lose their
"inherent" definiteness or indefiniteness. The problem
with this view is that "qualitative emphasis" amounts to much
the same thing as "meaning." One of the fundamental
principles of lexical semantics is that in a given context, a word will
convey only one meaning (unless the writer intends ambiguity).1
In other words, if an indefinite noun refers to class membership, while a
qualitative noun refers to nature or qualities, we actually have two
referents (and thus two meanings) in the same context.
Greg Stafford has offered the most cogent response to this objection I have seen from a Witness apologist:
This argument sounds plausible at first, but upon closer examination, involves circular reasoning. Mr. Stafford says he does not see a noun losing its indefinite or definite nuance when it is emphasized. This statement assumes what it seeks to prove: namely, that nouns are either definite or indefinite, to the exclusion of qualitative. I agree that a definite noun that is emphasized does not lose its definiteness; the same is true of an indefinite noun. But this fact does not prove that the qualities of a noun are necessarily highlighted by emphasizing that noun, nor that qualitative nouns cannot themselves by emphasized. It should also be noted that a definite noun "loses" its indefiniteness (or, more accurately, indefiniteness "was not present to begin with") and vice verse, so it should be no problem, conceptually, with qualitative nouns "losing" (or never having) definiteness and/or indefiniteness.
Mr. Stafford continues:
I am not aware that any Greek grammarian has suggested that nouns are emphasized by placing them in front of verbs. Harner does suggest that theos is John 1:1c is emphasized,3 but this is because it is placed at the head of its clause, not because it is in front of the verb.
But I will accept, for the sake of argument, that the placement of theos in front of the verb is for emphasis. If theos is definite it refers to the Person or Being who is God. While theos may include numerous connotations (including "extraordinary majesty"), such connotations cannot be emphasized in the way Mr. Stafford supposes apart from its denotative meaning (that is, its 'sense' or dictionary definition), nor does the referent change. When a definite noun is emphasized, both its denotation and connotation are equally emphasized, and the referent remains the person, place, or thing signified by the noun. That is, emphasis lays stress on the entire "meaning" of the noun itself, not merely its qualities. A definite noun that is emphasized remains a definite noun, as Mr. Stafford says; but emphasis alone does not make the qualities of the noun more prominent.
Another Jehovah's Witness apologist argues much as Stafford:
This apologist has defined "god" as "a divine being." It thus has at least three sense components: "a", "divine", and "being." How does he know which component to emphasize? He has arbitrarily selected the "divine" component over the others. But why not "a divine BEING?" He has chosen to emphasize "divine" because he has equivocated "emphasis" to mean "qualitative emphasis." He has therefore selected the qualitative component to emphasize. But emphasis lays stress at the lexical level, not at the sense-component level. Thus, one should actually lay stress on all three sense components equally: "he is A DIVINE BEING." In other words, it is the noun itself that receives emphasis, not a single component of its meaning.
Emphasis based on word-order simply lays stress on a given noun, it does not affect the "meaning" beyond that. Nouns mean the same thing, whether they are emphasized or not. However, Mr. Stafford and other JWs have argued that "qualitative emphasis" actually does effect "meaning" by adding reference to qualities to an indefinite noun, which already refers to class-membership.
Mr. Stafford concludes:
Because the kind of emphasis Mr. Stafford is talking about cannot emphasize qualities apart from denotative meaning, he is right that they are not examples of "two or more simultaneous nuances," but he is wrong that they necessarily stress qualities. Such qualitative nuances can be brought out, of course, and Mr. Stafford can tell us that such was his intention in his examples. But if such is the case, to quote Harner: "The qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun [the·os] cannot be regarded as definite."5 In other words, qualitativeness can cause nouns to "lose" or "never have" a definite nuance, because the foremost thought in the author's mind is the quality or nature of the noun he is writing. Of course, what is true for definite nouns is also true of indefinite nouns.
In any given piece of discourse, the intention of the writer (unless
intending ambiguity) will be to convey one - and only one - meaning with
each word he chooses. Each word will have a single referent.
In John 1:1b, Theos refers to the Person theos; theos
in 1:1c refers to the qualities of theos possessed by the Logos.
In Greek, the qualitative nuance is often brought about by placing an anarthrous
noun in front of a copula.6 In Mr.
Stafford's examples, he is demonstrating that definite and indefinite
nouns can be emphasized, but not that emphasizing a noun necessarily
brings out qualities over other sense components. When qualities are
highlighted, it is because the noun refers to qualities - and nouns that
refer to qualities do not, at the same time, refer to class membership, or
to a particular member of the class.
1. "When used in a context, the situation and the syntactic environment contribute to the choice between the several possibilities of meaning. The word has a specific meaning in that context" (Louw, Semantics, p. 40). "The context of the utterance usually singles out (and perhaps modulates) the one sense, which is intended, from amongst the various senses which the word is potentially capable" (Cotterell, p. 175, emphasis in original). Silva quotes Vendryes: "Among the divers meanings a word possesses, the only one that will emerge into consciousness is the one determined by context (Vendryes, in Silva, p. 139), and says this principle is "one of the few universally accepted hermeneutical guidelines" (Silva, p. 138.).
6. In English, the qualitative aspect can be conveyed with the zero-article (Muromatsu, "The Classifier as a Primative" in Echepare and Miglio, eds., University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 3, p. 145), or - in certain uses - with the indefinite article (Slaten, p. 5).