Blog Archives

When words mean more than they seem, or not

I like those optical illusions that are really two pictures in one. Some people see a saxophone player, others a woman’s face. But, the truth is that the picture contains both. It has semantic “depth,” containing multiple legitimate meanings at the same time.

Words function much the same way. Rarely does any particular term support only a single meaning. Instead, words are “polyvalent,” rich with multiple possible meanings, simply waiting for an author to select one of those many meanings in any particular act of communication.

But, that depth of meaning also contributes to significant ambiguity if it’s unclear which of these several meanings the author intends. And, at times, the difficulty of choosing between multiple possible meanings leaves the reader wondering if the author may actually be playing with more than one meaning at once. Is it possible, that rather than choosing between A, B, and C, I’m supposed to see all three in the same text? If so, how would I know?

These are the questions that James DeYoung addressed in the paper that he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Origen’s “Beautiful Captive Woman,” Polyvalence, and the Meaning of the “Righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17“. (Dr. DeYoung is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.)

The specific focus of the paper is the paper that Frank Thielman presented at last year’s national ETS conference. Thus, DeYoung begins his paper by summarizing Thielman’s two key arguments and the main lines of evidence used to support them. First, Thielman contended that “righteousness of God” in Romans is polyvalent, including at least three basic ideas: (1) the saving activity of God, (2) the gift of acquittal, and (3) an attribute of God. All three of these are in play throughout Romans, so we shouldn’t try to limit Paul’s meaning to any one of them. Second, Thielman argued that analysis of both biblical and extrabiblical information suggests that the specific attribute in view is God’s fairness and equity in how he distributes salvation.

What follows this summary is really a series of thoughts sparked by this way of understanding Paul. DeYoung is particularly concerned about the implications of finding such polyvalence in the text. Although he affirms that texts may have a surprising depth of meaning, and he’s cautious about identifying the meaning of the text directly with any particular interpretation of that meaning, he rejects the idea that an author (in normal discourse) intends more than one meaning at the same time. And, he suggests that such moves toward polyvalence are implicitly attempts to move away from authorial intent as a guiding hermeneutical objective.

DeYoung is also troubled by the emphasis that Thielman places on extrabiblical literature in the discussion. Although DeYoung recognizes the importance of such secondary literature, he thinks that the biblical context, particularly the OT background and worldview, of NT terms/phrases should have preeminence.

So when does the interpreter appeal to secular usage to interpret a biblical text? It should be done to confirm a biblical definition, or to explain a term that is a hapax legomenon (occurring only once in the literature), or when it adds meaning that the Bible would also support.

Several of DeYoung’s arguments relate to the fact that he remains ultimately unconvinced by Thielman’s argument for “equity” as the attribute under consideration. DeYoung thinks that Thielman mishandles some of the evidence and overemphasizes others.

So, to conclude, DeYoung offers his own understand of the phrase in question.

So what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17? It seems best to define it as follows. In the gospel, proclaiming the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is revealing his nature as upright. He is upright or just because the gospel is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes it. Or, because the gospel (proclaiming the atoning, substitutionary death of Christ and his resurrection) is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes (v. 17b), God reveals that he himself is just or upright regarding the need to punish sin by what he has done right in the work of Christ at the cross and in the resurrection. He vindicates himself as just by  what he did at the cross and by how he can accept the guilty.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Flotsam and jetsam (1/5)

  • Adam Copeland offers a discussion between a Twitter lover and a Twitter skeptic on Twitter Theology.

    I’m saying the Twitter community is one way—and a very helpful and cool way—of experiencing, showing, and living out those connections of our Church-connected theology.

    Somehow, however, as we have left allegory behind, perhaps killing it off precisely because of its religious origins, we have ended up leaving viewers and readers with oddly literalistic interpretive skills.

    So yeah, the coffee tastes a little burnt, it’s often hard to find a table, and occasionally they play Willie Nelson. But I’m sticking with it, because for all the prayers I’ve prayed, the conversations I’ve had where I felt the Holy Spirit move, for all the significant moments on my journey that I’ve had and am yet to have at St. Arbucks, I’m grateful.

    • Bill Mounce discusses “church nice” – our tendency to ignore sin for the sake of “peace.”

    Isn’t it interesting how explicit Scripture is? If you have something against someone, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 18:15). If you know your brother or sister has something against you, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 5:23-24). It is always yourresponsibility.

    Cyril vs. Theodore – exegetical grudge match or hermeneutical harmony?

    [We are continuing the process of posting papers from last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. In this paper, Andy Peloquin argues that the divide between Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methodologies is not as great as commonly believed.]

    The Exegesis of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia: A Play in Three Acts

    There is a common conception that characterizes the method of exegesis in Alexandria and Antioch as allegorical versus literal, respectively. However, recent study indicates that this may not be as simple as it sounds. Therefore to illustrate the precariousness of this premise, this study focuses on two of the most exegetically notable individuals that represent each school from the fourth to fifth centuries: Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and how they compare with the ‘stereotypes’ of the exegetical methods from their respective schools. In order to do this, three areas are examined: the general Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methods; the exegetical distinctives of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia as they compare to these general methods; and as a point of illustration, a comparison of each of their works, in this case, their introductions to commentaries on the book of Jonah. It is shown that this simplification of these schools does not in fact hold up under scrutiny and that the positions of the exegetes were far more nuanced than this classification suggests.

    A study in text/event typology…kind of

    [Andy originally posted this in the comments for our discussion on allegorizing our new header. But, it was so much fun that I thought it deserved to be a post in its own right.]

    “A Study in Alexandrian and Antiochene Text/Event Typology: The Scientia et Sapientia Blog Banner as ‘Text’ in Light of Its Historical ‘Event’ in the Source Material of the Norwegian versus Russian Documentary Hypothesis. The use of a semester’s class work in vainglorious attempts at humor.”

    The banner heading for the blog Scientia et Spientia stems from a long debated ‘text’ picture of the Norwegian tale Three Billy Goats Gruff. It is the purpose of this paper to show that this ‘text’ picture can best be understood and interpreted by using proper Patrisitc typology in conjunction with the relationship of the ‘text’ of the picture to the ‘event’ it depicts, the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’, or more truthfully, to the Russian source material ‘Three Gruff Serfs’ from which the Norwegian story was based.

    This banner heading picture is derived from the classic Norwegian folk tale ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (De tre Bukkene Bruse). A little known fact about this story is that is that the Norwegians plagiarized it from Russia stemming from their involvement in the Great Northern War (1700-21). As allies, it was normal for interaction between the foot soldiers and of course they shared stories around the campfires in the cold Northern winters. The Russian story, три грубоватый крестьянин (Three Gruff Serfs), was a very popular Baltic village story about three disheveled serfs who were trying to escape from the land. In trying to row cross the river that marked its boundary, they were waylaid by a treacherous vodyanoy, the slimy ‘grandfather’ of the river who was wont to take souls into the depths to become his watery slaves. The three desperate serfs were able to cheat him by indicating that they were merely scouts for their lord who would be coming over the river shortly to claim territories beyond it. They insinuated that a lord makes a far better slave then three lowly serfs. Furthermore, these rapscallions indicated that they would assist him in capturing their lord by calling to him from the other side. The vodyanoy knew how shrewd the local lord was and that he was always looking for more land to occupy. He also knew he would make a nice collection to his underwater menagerie. He agreed and let them pass. On reaching the far bank the serfs shouted out their freedom and mocked the vodyanoy’s stupidity and then went in their way.

    Now the Norwegians at this time were in need of some serious cultural identity. Having been pummeled by their neighbor Sweden for the last one hundred years, they were just now unifying and coming out from under the Swedish influence. They took this story as their own, contextualizing it to their own environment, substituting their local troll for the Russian vodyanoy. Of course trolls live under bridges so they put a bridge over the river. It is not clear why they substituted three goats for the three serfs but scholars believe that it was because of the penchant for Norwegians to avoid morality tales involving humans, opting for the more Aesop like animal fable. Additionally, the popularity it engendered led to changing it from a deception based story in order to teach children they can be clever without lying (i.e. in the three goats, each one asked not to be eaten because the next one was bigger and thus fatter. The third one was big enough to kick the troll and escape. They did not lie, but used their wits to extricate themselves). Since this story there has been a great debate raging on the border between Norway and Russia about whose story it is. There was little evidence until a document was discovered in Soviet Leningrad that was likely penned during the early years of St. Petersburg (c. 1705) that tells the story of три грубоватый крестьянин. This indicates that indeed it was first a Russian story. This document, titled Codex Lenigradis Gruffius, now resides in the State Hermitage Museum.

    While some may contend that such a dependence on both the original three Goats Gruff story as well as extra three-Goats-Gruffian material is antithetical to an appropriate understanding of this picture (that we should be able to derive all we need to know from the picture itself) in fact we are not committing any false dependence on background information. Thus the ‘event’ of three goats/serfs is not placed above, in any way, the importance of the ‘text’ of the picture. Rather the redactor (artist) has pieced together a pictorial narrative that has to be understood by its source material unless frivolous interpretation is engaged in. Thus we need to look at interpretive methodology and to properly ‘exegete’ this picture. As any good exegete knows, allegoria, as used by the early Alexandrian exegetes like Philo and Origen, is replete with fantastical relationships in texts to show tangential relationships without considering the text in context. Therefore, a more proper exegesis would be to examine it in light of typos, which exegetes from both the Alexandrian school (e.g. Cyril of Alexandrian) and Antiochene school (e.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia) would regard as appropriate.

    It is markedly clear that the artist is depicting the uncertainty that the first goat of the story is undergoing in facing the prospect of crossing the bridge. It is not clear if he knows in fact that the troll resides under said bridge, but there is some evidence that would lead us to conclude that he did. One such textual indication is in the gathering of the crows. There would be no other reasons for three crows to gather save for the expectation of a goat-gruff carcass to feast upon. It is also clear that the goat would probably have seen the smoke rising from the pipe. This is not some naturally occurring fire smoke which would be in a more billowing pattern. Instead it is a tight curl of smoke wafting up to the sky, which is plainly indicative as sourced from a pipe.

    Now, knowing the background here helps us get a better understanding of the ‘text’. By the Norwegian tale, we know that the goats had eaten all the grass on their side and were looking to the sweet, sweet grass on the other. It would be safe to assume that the troll indeed took up residence and has in fact unceremoniously dispatched many previous goats, whether gruff or not, who attempted crossing to the sweet, sweet grass fields that lay beyond (in fact, Gustavus Nordmank, the late Norwegian Classics scholar, surmised that the troll in fact actually planted and cared for these fertile fields to lure such goats to cross the bridge, however, there is debate on this matter, but it stands as an interesting hypothesis.) Additionally, we know that the small goat is clever and so he would understand the meaning of the smoke emanating from under the bridge. Therefore from the literal ‘text’ of the picture, it is clear we have a nervous and yet willing goat ready to partake of the juicy grasslands across the bridge.

    However, according to Alexandrian and Antiochene practice, we know that there is also a deeper meaning to this picture. This meaning is rooted in the typos relationship tied to the original Russian story. Thus it is very evident that the three serfs are a type to orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. Their trip on the boat is a type to the movement of these from a place of slavery (their serfdom) to a place of lush new hope, i.e. they go from a place of where they are misused in the service of scholastic hegemons, to a fertile place where they can grow and prosper together in freedom. The boat therefore is the connecting device between the former and the latter. The vodyanoy is a type to the ignorance of the world that would rather suck down these three and make them a slave to the world system, in other words to make them a slave to ‘the man’.

    The Norwegian derivation, however, alters this understanding a bit since it sends the goats one by one over the bridge. Thus indicating that these are separate entities and any one in particular could be taken out by the troll. This would give us a completely different interpretation. Instead, we can easily assume that the artist, and here we can faithfully use some Origenian thought, had the truth of the Russian story in mind, whether conscious or not, that could be revealed to those understanding the mystery that is contained within the ‘text’ picture. Thus he expressed in the familiar Norwegian garb, the actual typology of the original Russian event. Thus the single goat represents all three orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy united together. The bridge is the journey from the empty fields of vain academic pursuit to the lush fields of where the three can freely be expressed for the betterment for all. The troll stills represents the attempt of ‘the man’ to derail this effort. Thus from our use of typology and a proper understanding and use of the original source material, we can see that the text reveals to us that scientia and sapientia, represented in the three ‘orthos’ of the goat, have at time languished in periods of drought, but that the successful crossing of the bridge, i.e. the reading of the blog, will open the visualize to a new understanding of their importance united together and thus ‘fatten’ his mind and ministry.

    A final note is in the often, and to be honest, overwrought discussion of the meaning of the words on the bridge. There have been numerous articles stating the meaning and significance both of their inclusion and placement on the bridge. However, it is abundantly clear that this was not part of the original artists work and can be ascribed to later artistic addition. It serves as a later gloss to try to explain the meaning of the bridge. Thus we should omit this variant reading and stay with the original ‘text’ picture.

    It was a holiday morning, what can I say.