Monday, May 26, 2014

They Seem To Be Used Interchangeably

Hermeneutics: the art of analyzing and interpreting the meaning of text. This is a key element to discovering what it true according to the Bible and vitally important to developing Christian doctrine.

The title of this article, They Seem To Be Used Interchangeably, is often offered as an argument for accepting some types of doctrinal conclusions. That is to say that where a couple of different words are used in similar contexts, whether the two words mean precisely the same thing bears some relevance on determining the meaning of the passage.

There are two common examples from scripture. One is when “love” translated from two Greek words, “agape” and “phileo”, in the common American reference to them. Another example are the Greek words, “psyche” and “pneuma”, translated as “soul” and “spirit” in similar contexts respectively. In the “love” argument, the difference in doctrinal conclusions is whether or not to make a distinction between God’s love and the love of the world. In the “soul and spirit” argument, the difference in doctrine has to do with whether man is made up of three parts: “body, soul, and spirit”, or only two parts: “body and soul/spirit”.

One of the problems I have with making such sharp distinctions is that such argumentation ignores the subtle nuances of interpretation when words overlap in meaning but are not precisely the same. I’ll offer here a couple of neutral examples of what I mean.

I have used in the past a stark example of how words can appear interchangeable but mean completely different things. I drive a red Ford Focus. It’s a common car and gets good fuel mileage. That means that it’s relatively cheaper to purchase, maintain, and operate than many other cars. What if I say of my car, “My car is red.” What if I say again later that, “My car is a Ford Focus.” If you knew what the word “red” meant, but had no idea what “a Ford Focus” was then perhaps you might be inclined to conclude that “a Ford Focus” was the color “red”. Perhaps you thought to yourself and realized that the two statements might be referring to two different categories. You would be correct, but you could still get into trouble if you though to yourself that all Ford Focuses were red. Using such a stark example, I hope you can see how both are obviously silly conclusions.

I have a more subtle example that brings this observation to bear on the hermeneutical argument. In my town of Statesville, NC, West Front Street is an industrial development serviced by a train that runs between the industrial properties. I can say one of two things that mean the same thing. I can either say, “There is a train that runs along West Front Street,” or I can say, “There is a railway that runs along West Front Street.” Both statements refer to the exact same thing. All I have done is replaced “train” with “railway”, and both terms refer to the system of rails, cars, and engines that transport goods to and from industries along West Front Street.

But let me use those very same terms in another statement. I can either say, “We need to do maintenance on the railway, “ or “We need to do maintenance on the train.” These two statements mean somewhat different things. The first statement indicates that we need to go out and repair or renew some segment of the tracks on which the train runs. The second statement indicates that we need to repair or renew some aspect of the cars or engines that run along the rails. While these terms can be used interchangeably in one context, they refer to somewhat different things in another. I say “somewhat different” because the terms are still related.

It is for this reason that I hold this argument suspect in biblical hermeneutics. If I observe similar usage of different terms, I will observe how they are used. If there is sufficient reason to conclude in one place that they are referring to the same thing, then so be it. However, I won’t presume that two terms always meant the same thing in every context. For the examples I have given, I believe it is a logical error to conclude that different terms used as referents to the same thing in one case will always refer to the same thing in other cases, especially if a doctrinal conclusion hinges on it.

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