The Seat of Authority in Language
By Steve Lloyd and Don Ruhl
In the August 21st, 1980, issue of the Gospel Advocate, Hugo McCord made this observation, “Greek grammar is valuable, but this writer is suspicious of any doctrine dependent wholly upon Greek Grammar. Such leaves most of the human race in an impossible situation.” Many have done this very thing; built doctrinal houses “dependent wholly upon Greek grammar.”
Examples of Doctrinal Houses Built Wholly Upon Greek Grammar
With divorce and remarriage some are seeking diligently for a “punctiliar present” (meaning point action rather than a continuing process) for “commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). “Commits adultery” is translated from a Greek word that is in the present tense. (Whether there is such a thing as a “punctiliar present” is highly questionable). Thus when a person divorces and remarries unscripturally, he is committing adultery and continues to do so as long as he remains in that union. But some, not being content with the teachings of the New Testament seek after additional meaning in the Greek tense, which just is not there. They are searching after a meaning that would allow them to define adultery as the legal procedure which involves putting one spouse away and marrying another, instead of the relationship that is formed.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses commonly apply a single definition of a word to every occurrence of that word, paying no attention to context. For example, the Greek word pneuma can be defined, “the wind, or the air in motion.”
Such is the meaning in John 3:8, “The wind (to pneuma) blows where it wishes …” But then our friends in the Watchtower Society assume that every occurrence of pneuma ought to be understood as wind or active force.
Such use of the Greek is an abuse and a violation of common sense. With few exceptions all words have multiple meanings, whether it be Greek or English. Check your dictionary on the word “of.” And how should “bank” be understood in the following sentence: “Yesterday I sat on a bank and fished?” Would the same meaning for “bank” be used in describing an airplane going into a bank? Obviously, a Greek lexicon can be helpful, but it is not the final authority; the context is.
Generally, false teachers and denominationalists pitch their doctrinal tents on a faulty use of Greek. Some search day and night, hoping to discover that eis in Acts 2:38 means “because of” rather than “unto.” Others hope that the original language will tell them that Peter (whose name means a rock or pebble ) is the rock upon which Jesus promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18). There are those who are willing to change the day of worship from the Lord’s day to the Sabbath because they believe they have discovered some previously undiscovered truth in the Greek of Acts 20:7. What is also being questioned is the creation of the universe from nothing. Is an ex nihilo (out of nothing) creation of the universe inherent in the Hebrew words for “make” and “creation”? Such use is demanding more from these words than was originally intended. Many more examples could be given of doctrinal tents being pitched solely on Greek grammar or lexicons. And how is a non-Greek student suppose to investigate these matters?
How Word Definitions Are Determined
God expects us to use our common sense (Isaiah 1:18). When there is more than one definition of a word, proper reasoning indicates that the context determines which should be used. Arguing on similar matters, Wayne Jackson notes:
Sound scholarship does not contend that ex nihilo creation is inherent in these Hebrew verbs. What we do contend is this: contextual considerations in Genesis One and in other biblical references, argue for an ex nihilo creation!
In a similar vein Wayne asks: “Is there any rule of Greek grammar which would mandate that the baptism of Acts 2:38 is to be in ‘water’? No.”
No doubt a Greek grammar could be quoted wherein the author gives Acts 2:38 as an example of water baptism. Then the one using the quotation would proudly claim that Doctor so and so says Acts 2:38 is water baptism. Of course, he would be correct; not because the grammar book said so, but because context would demand such.
The Use of Greek Lexicons and Grammars
Greek lexicons and grammars are simply the works of men reflecting their analysis of the actual use of a language by the natives who spoke it. These books are not the final authority; a fact which they themselves recognize.
Consider the following quotations from men who are recognized as “authorities” on the Greek of the New Testament:
The student must remember at all times that the function of a grammar is not to determine the laws of language, but explain them. That is, language first developed as a means of expressing the thoughts of mankind, and then grammars were written to explain the laws and principles of language as it functions to express ideas. In one’s native tongue, one senses the meaning of these constructions almost subconsciously, but in a strange tongue one must, by diligent toil, acquire the view point of the language and follow its idioms closely to get its meaning.
The idea that syntax is a formulation of rules for correct speech is an erroneous notion. Syntax is the process of analyzing and classifying the modes of expression presented by a language. It does not govern language; it deals with the facts of language as they are found. Hence we are not to study the history of and aspects of linguistic phenomena as they appear in the Greek text of the New Testament. “The scientific grammar is at bottom a grammatical history, and not a linguistic law-book. The seat of authority in language is therefore not in the books about language, but the people who use the language” (R. 31).
The office of the grammarian is therefore to register and to interpret facts, not to manufacture or warp the facts to a theory. The novice in the study of syntax has difficulty in ridding his mind of the idea that grammars and dictionaries regulate a language. They merely interpret a language more or less correctly as the case may be. The seat of authority in language is not the books about language, but the people who speak and write it. The usage of the best educated writers determines the literary style of a language, while the whole people determine the vernacular. Change in language cannot be stopped save by death of the language.
Final authority in determining the exact meaning of the language is not found in some Greek grammar book, but rather in thorough inductive study of how the natives actually used the language, as seen in multiplied examples where the context of dozens or hundreds of statements clearly reveal the exact shades of meanings …. No grammar book can overthrow how the native Greek-speaking people used their own language …. Yet quite a few brethren today are building their doctrinal houses regarding marriage-divorce-remarriage on the shifting sands of a few alleged exceptions to the overwhelming main-stream thrust of the present tense throughout Greek literature!
John Broadus made this insightful statement about grammars: “The great works of Greek poetry and history were written before any treatises on grammar existed.”
Indeed languages of all kinds had been in use long before someone sat down and started to analyze what they were speaking. All the generations of history previous to grammars have learned their native language even as young children do today: by hearing their parents speak and repeating it after them. This principle is also recognized in other languages besides New Testament Greek. “… the rules may be reformulated but not changed (unless the usage changes) because the rules must reflect the usage of the society rather than the predilections of the grammarians.”
Were doctors the ones to create the human body and determine how it should operate? Or, do they merely analyze the body and inform us as to how it operates based upon their observations? How many meteorologists (“weather men”) had a hand in forming the weather patterns of the world? Or, do they merely analyze it for us and predict the weather to the best of their ability? Did Matthew carry a copy of William Hersey Davis’s, Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament? Was Luke aware of the work of F. Blass and A. Debrunner’s work, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature? Remember, even as the chicken came before the egg (Genesis 1:21, 22), so languages came before grammars and lexicons (Genesis 11:1–9).
Are grammars and lexicons and other tools of the original language worthless? Do we find physicians useless because God did not consult them when He created man? No. Similarly a study of the original languages of the Bible can be very useful. Such a study adds more flavor and color to the teachings of the Scriptures. Moreover, it enables one to do the serious work of translating. If the Non-Greek and non-Hebrew student will diligently apply himself to a study of a reliable English translation, he will gain substantial knowledge of God’s will for man.
Hugo McCord concluded his aforementioned article with these words, “Those gospel preachers are presumptive and daring who risk the souls of their hearers on such a tenuous interpretation allegedly hidden in the Greek.”
1George Ricker Berry, Berry’s Greek-English New Testament Lexicon With Synonyms, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980.
2You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1982, p. 37.
3Wayne Jackson, “That ‘Loaded’ Questionaire,” Reason and Revelation, Montgomery, Alabama: Apologetics Press, Inc., February, 1984, Vol., 4, No. 2, p. 9.
4Ibid., p. 10.
5William Douglas Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979, p. 3.
6H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Toronto, Ontario: MacMillan Co., 1955, pp. 59-60. In the quotation marks Dana and Mantey quote from A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research.
7A. T. Robertson, A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Garden City, New York; Doubleday, Doran and Co., Inc., 1929, p. 4.
8Troy Cummings, The Meaning of the Greek Aorist Tense, Buena Park, California: privately published, 1979, pp. 1,3,9.
9John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, New York, New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926, pp. 348,349.
10J. Martin Walsh and Anne Kathleen Walsh, Plain English Handbook, Cincinnati, Ohio: McCormich-Mathers Publishing Co., 1972, p. 186.
11McCord, op. cit.