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Qualitative Nouns - 

Emphasis or Meaning

A Response to Jehovah's Witness Apologists on Theos in John 1:1c

Robert Hommel


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:

I disagree that what I am suggesting is something like saying that a word can have two or more meanings. Rather, what I am saying is that any descriptive term naturally conveys certain qualities. That being said, and if we agree, there is never an instance of a definite or indefinite noun that is without a qualitative nuance. When such a term is emphasized, I see no reason to conclude that the indefinite or definite nuance is lost or was not present to begin with.2

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:

If I were to, for example, use QEOS as the subject of a sentence I could do so by saying QELEI SWZEIN SE QEOS. Or I could say, QEOS QELEI SE SWZEIN. Now, there is no way of proving what an ancient Greek writer might have been trying to convey by this placement of terms. However, I could say that in my reading of Greek I tend to think that in the first example there is more of an emphasis on the verbs, the fact that God is WILLING to SAVE you. In the second instance, we could say that the writer is concerned with letting his  readers know that it is GOD who wishes to save YOU. The idea in the latter case being something along the lines of, "_God_, the Almighty, wants to save you, _you_ a finite being."

Yet, in the first instance while the emphasis is on the verbs, they are still verbs. Nouns are grammatically different than verbs, of course, but the qualities associated with the nouns QEOS and SE (even a pronoun as it is used  here) in this context are merely brought to the fore due to their placement in the sentence. Taking QEOS as our point of departure, it is clear that it is still definite, but because of its use in the sentence it receives greater emphasis and more forcefully recalls by design the extraordinary majesty of the one so known (Ibid.)

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:

When JWs say that QEOS is Q-i at John 1:1c, they are merely saying that he is being called "a god" with the sense that he is "a DIVINE being" [with DIVINE cap'd to highlight intended emphasis in the writer's mind].4

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:

None of the above examples present a noun with "two or more simultaneous nuances," but with one nuance (indefiniteness or definiteness) and an emphasis or lack thereof on the qualities inseparably a part of the term.  That is what I am arguing for in John 1:1 and elsewhere when we discuss the fronting of the PN, or any other term (Ibid).

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.).

2.  Greg Stafford to Paul Dixon on B-Greek, Fri Mar 2 22:39:45 EST 2001.

3Harner, p. .85.

4.  Kaz to Robert on Evangelicals and JWs, Wed Oct 4, 2006 12:55 am.

5.  Quoted approvingly by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in SYBT in reference to John 1:1.

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).