Sunday, May 15, 2016

And the Word was God "Qualitatively"?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 4)

I've been corresponding with a nice fellow on another forum who offered P.B. Harner's argumentation to support taking QEOS at John 1:1c "qualitatively".  Since I still haven't managed to find the time (or to take the time) to address Harner's thesis in this series, I thought it might be useful to post my most recent response to my fellow interlocutor, as I do provide a bullet list of what I consider the most serious problems with the 'Q Hypothesis', including some of Harner's contentions.  I've omitted my interlocutor's name and his side of the dialogue because I did not get his permission to quote him here.  You can read the dialogue for yourself, at the link following link if you wish:


[Snip comment]

I appreciate the fact that you took the time to consider my perspective. I actually have a number of issues with what I call the ‘Q hypothesis’ as it was formulated by Harner and later “refined” by Dixon, and I hope to elaborate more when I finally post on Harner on my blog (I’m a bit shy about posting an encyclopedic argument here!). First of all, though, I would say that neither of them “arrive[d] at their conclusion that the noun QEOS is ‘qualitative’” via any sort of sound exegesis or demonstrably valid grammatical analysis. Rather, I think that they both came to realize that Colwell’s Rule had been misapplied, and they came to feel that a definite QEOS equated the LOGOS with God in a way that was perceived to be unacceptable, which left them with a problem to solve. As they pondered a potential solution, they came to sincerely believe that a ‘qualitative’ QEOS was the only QEOS that could sit comfortably within their Christological worldview, and so they assumed it to be so before ever picking up pen and paper. At that time there was probably a growing uneasiness among informed people about the once popular Calwell-ian understanding, and so when someone came along and offered an alternative, they embraced it with great alacrity and accepted it with childlike eagerness long before it was properly vetted or demonstrated to be a valid linguistic phenomenon.

From my perspective, what Ken Ham does vis a vis modern science is what Harner and Dixon did vis a vis Greek. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ken Ham, but because he reads the creation accounts as speaking of a literal six day creation, he has to chuck a pretty large part of modern science, including Big Bang Theory (one of the most well established thoeries of our time), and come up with novel counter arguments to make YEC seem plausible. Most of us aren’t about to chuck Big Bang Theory, however, because of the YEC notion that unexpectedly low levels of moon dust tells us that the universe is young (as just one example of the sort of 'novel' counterargument that YEC’s have offered).

Harner was probably motivated by apologetic concerns, and Dixon certainly was, as one can infer when reading the introduction to his thesis. Not only did he explicitly state that both a definite and an indefinite QEOS were unacceptable (i.e. the two valid options, IMO), but he also presented his case as evidence specifically against the ‘a god’ rendering found in the Watchtower Society’s New World Translation. The folks at DTS, which is the Seminary Dixon attended when he wrote his thesis, have historically been a bit obsessed with the NWT. When I see the odd contortions that those folks have gone through to try and disqualify one of the two patently valid renderings, I find myself echoing Queen Gertrude by observing that “The lady doth protest too much”;-)

The Q hypotheses appears to be founded on assumptions about how language works that are confused, unsubstantiated, and rather easy to disconfirm if you're willing to look at the data dispassionately. The following are what I consider the most conspicuous, critical problems:

a. The notion that if a noun is used in a context where nature is inferred, then it may be “technically” indefinite, but in some self-serving way that somehow renders use of the indefinite article in translation as inappropriate or inadequate.

b. The notion that ‘qualitative’ is a separate distinct category of bounded noun, when one can easily demonstrate that the very ‘qualitativeness’ they infer -- if it's even really there in a given context -- actually depends on a bounded noun’s definiteness or indefiniteness.

c. The confused conflation of ‘definiteness’ and ‘indefiniteness’ with meaning itself, when in reality these are more like syntactical tools that contribute to meaning, but aren’t meaning in and of themselves.

To help illustrate this problem, which may be a little vague as stated, I once saw someone on b-greek argue that QEOS at John 1:1c is "qualitative-indefinite". One of the posters there who seemed to favor Harner's/Dixon's approach (if memory serves) responded by saying something like this:

"I'd like to see an example of a qualitative-indefinte noun that does not involve a double entendre."

In making that statement, the gentleman revealed that he considers both qualitativeness and indefiniteness to be interchangeable or synonymous with meaning itself. So, for him, if it is qualitative then that is its meaning, and if it is indefinite then that is its meaning. To be both would be to have two meanings, which would be a double entendre.

I think that this is simply an ill-conceived notion that emerges due to imprecise thinking, and that indefinitness is more like a syntactical feature that contributes to meaning, but it isn't necessarily meaning in and of itself. Moreover, as I pointed out in my blog post, the very qualitativeness that proponents of Dixon's chimera infer to be present with various indefinite bounded nouns actually depends on the nouns' indefinitness, just as the qualitativeness some might infer from various definite bounded nouns actually depends on the nouns' definiteness. If qualitativeness depends on a noun's definitness or indefinitness, then it cannot be the noun's meaning to the exclusion of the noun's definiteness or indefiniteness.

It seems that Dixon himself probably intuitively realized this at some level, as he states in the intro to his thesis that all nouns are "technically" either definite or indefinite, and that he separated the "qualitative" nouns from the class of indefinite nouns for the sake of "expediency". I'd say that the folks at DTS are masters at smoke and mirrors, but they actually seem to be rather clumsy at it;-)

d. The ridiculous notion, seemingly born ad hoc from pure imagination out of utter desperation, that if John wanted readers to infer an indefinite QEOS then he would have placed it after the verb rather than before the verb. I suffered third degree burns from spilling my coffee in my lap when I read that nonsense (humor alert), so bemused was I to see a professed ‘authority’ utter what any first year student of Greek can plainly see is not true. Indeed, statistically, it is more common for pre-verbal anarthrous predicate bounded nouns to be indefinite than anything else, and usually when they’re definite there are contextual factors that make this probable, even unavoidable in some cases. The reason the English translations of all those verses I posted on my blog make such good sense in context even with the indefinite article is because they accurately convey the sense of the underlying Greek.  It's not merely that the use of the indefinite article conforms to English syntax, but that said English syntax actually captures the sense of the Greek.

e. In conjunction with ‘d’, the bizarre notion, again apparently born ad hoc from pure imagination, that merely placing a noun before a verb causes the noun to change meaning, when everyone who’s studied Greek at all knows how flexible the language is vis a vis word order. As far as I can tell, the most that is achieved by fronting may be a mild though useful shift in emphasis, similar to what occurs in English when we rearrange a sentence from the active to the passive voice. If we rearrange a sentence from the active to the passive voice, there is no shift in meaning at the word level; there is merely a shift in emphasis at the sentence level. Likewise, when a noun is placed before the verb in Greek, there is not a shift in meaning at the word level, but there may be a subtle shift in emphasis at the sentence level.

[Snip comment about a Jehovah's Witness he spoke with]

Well, if the JW felt that the mere grammatical feature of an indefinite QEOS by itself meant that Jesus was a lesser god, then I’d say that he was clearly mistaken. One could say that "the Father is a god who is slow to anger”, or “the Father is a god of the living, not of the dead”, or “the Father is a god who designed us in a way that is fear-inspiring”, or "the Father truly is a god (=a supremely powerful supernatural being)", etc., without in any way suggesting that He is something other than the absolute Ruler of the universe.

However, if the JW you conversed with was also considering context, not just the indefinite QEOS by itself, then I would have to agree with him. IMO, in the context of John 1:1, the Bible as a whole, and the Jewish culture from which the NT emerged, the LOGOS could only be either a subordinate ‘G-god’, or 'God/a god' non-literally (=functionally/representationally). In arriving at this conclusion I obviously take different things for granted than you do. For example, I look at the Jewish worldview as expressed in pretty much every form of writing available at the time and note that in every case, without exception, whenever an agent of God has a divine title applied to him, the subordination of the agent to the principal is taken for granted (e.g. angels, Moses, Judges, Kings, Melchizedek, the Israelites at Sinai). Most scholars today recognize how much the agency principle sheds light on the Son’s relationship to the Father and us, and while it’s quite striking to realize that his work as agent began with the act of original creation itself, it was still work performed ‘as agent’.

[Snip interlocutor's concluding comments]

I agree [that understanding QEOS at John 1:1c to mean "the God" has baggage], though I'll simply point out that QEOS wouldn’t need the article at John 1:1c to be definite. Although Colwell’s Rule was misapplied for decades, the part that was misapplied appears to be valid (as actually stated, not as restated or re-conceived by some who abused it):

“Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article" (A Definite Rule…, p. 20)

In other words, say we assume that QEOS is definite at John 1:1c. Granting that assumption for the sake of argument, we can note that it’s actually statistically more likely that it would not have the article. That's why some have pointed out that the only meaningful application of Colwell's Rule is for textual criticism. To exemplify how this is so, let's say that a textual critic were to have before him or her two manuscripts that contain the same verse, and one has a definite pre-verbal noun with the article while the other has the same definite pre-verbal noun but without the article. Were this to occur, the scholar could conclude that it's statistically more likely that the manuscript with the reading that omits the article is the one more likely to have the correct reading.

Anyway, my pillow is calling me, so I'll wrap this up by agreeing that I too have a horse in the race, and theology can influence my judgement just as it can anyone else’s. Having conceded that, however, I will say that I consider myself to be somewhat less biased with reference to the subject text than most people I’m familiar with who’ve used it apologetically. I happily embrace both the traditional translation (‘the Word was God’) and the one that sticks in the craw of the folks at DTS (‘the Word was a god’) as legitimate possibilities, grammatically, contextually, and theologically.  Indeed, though I would probably fear for my sanity in light of my understanding of how bounded and unbounded nouns function in both English and Greek, from a purely theological perspective I wouldn't even mind if someone could prove that I'm mistaken about the 'Q Hypothesis', as this would merely increase the possibilities by a third. I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though;-)

What disappoints me the most isn’t that Trinitarians favor the traditional rendering, or even some paraphrase that is thought to stress ‘qualitativeness’, but that it’s virtually impossible to find a willingness on their part to honestly present the real grammatical possibilities and express their preference in an evenhanded way. Like the rest of us, they want confidence for themselves and their followers that they understand the text correctly, and this drives them, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to try and stack the deck against alternative views. Sadly, they've gone to such absurd lengths to secure this confidence that they've undermined their own credibility. I'm not speaking about you, of course, but about the professed 'authorities' who have demonstrated such a shameful track-record when it comes to the most sacred of all theological cows: John 1:1c.

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