One of the many important factors in understanding the Bible is identifying how authors use specific words. So it’s important to be able to identify definitive statements made by authors. A famous one is Hebrews 11:1. I’ve heard that preached as definitive of faith throughout the Bible. Now, that’s not a bad thing. However, there is a refinement that is often overlooked.
There are two qualities to definitive statements: connotation and denotation. Now we are familiar with those words because we learned them in school as such: denotation is the dictionary definition; and connotation is how we feel about the word. “Piety” and “devotion” have that same basic denotation, but for many people they have completely opposite connotations.
How does this apply to the definitive statements? One would hope that the dictionary would have strict denotations, but when a connotation becomes common enough it is added to the dictionary as a definition. So there’s not always a clear delineation between connotation and denotation.
This applies to study of the Bible when we identify a definitive statement. Like Hebrews 11:1, many take the statement as purely denotative. But we have to take into consideration that the statement is partially connotative. Logically, it works this way: Everything fits into categories. A certain amount of categories specified or excluded are enough to define something to a degree, but particular definition requires its exclusion from everything else in all categories that apply to it. Denotation is enough to fit the meaning of a word into a reasonable number of categories. But inasmuch as that word applies to more categories than what are generally specified, a definitive statement is connotative. So a connotation doesn’t require explicit denotation although some denotation may be given.
Let me give a tangible example as an explanation. I own a car. Now we all know the general definition of a car. So you know that I’m probably referring to a transportation vehicle that has four wheels and some means of propulsion. You might ask what kind of car I have and I might respond with, “I own a 2000 Ford Focus LX4.” That narrows it down significantly. But what if the police were after me and a witness said that they saw a Red Ford Focus, older style headlights, with North Carolina license plate that starts with “HCL” but they didn’t catch the rest. That might be enough information for the police to track me down as the owner of the car. So they didn’t have all the information, but they had enough to narrow down the information to one single car as different from the rest. Now, I could give you the VIN number without telling you anything else and you could find the car. The VIN number is completely denotative although I didn’t even say it was a car. The information exists elsewhere and can be easily discovered.
By the way, there is a common argument for dismissing some words in the Bible as synonymous. It is said of these that they “seem to be used interchangeably”. I’d have to look at them and analyze how they are used to determine if that argument is warranted. Sticking with the car example, one can say that my car is red. That statement is somewhat definitive. It can also be said that blood is red. That seems to be definitive. But my car isn’t blood. They are both in the category “red”, but they do not share many more categories than that. So it may be that two things that share many of the same categories are spoken of connotatively, but without arriving at a full denotation that demonstrates synonymy between them.
When John writes “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends,” we can arrive at some important conclusions about how John thinks about love, specifically the Greek “agape” as opposed to “phileo” that he uses a few verses later. There may be some more specific things that john has to add about love, and these are evidenced by the extended passages that serve as the context for these verses where he relays Jesus’ teaching about love.
So, when you are studying the Bible in depth and desire to think about what the words mean, I hope this helps to refine your thinking about how you do so.