Friday, September 21, 2007

The Son of God - A Highlight

Continued from Part II

In my previous post I noted that the technical theological term “Son of God” has been built up from passages that do not necessarily use the phrase itself. This deserves a footnote because of problems associated with reading the Bible in the light of our systematic theological or confessional vocabulary.

For most Christians, as I said before, the phrase "the Son of God" functions as short hand, an abbreviation, if you will, of a theological composite of teachings centering on questions concerning the divine nature of the Son in relation to God the Father. There is nothing wrong with this. But it does complicate the exegete’s work and naïve readers are often prone to making such a basic category mistake when they come across familiar theological terms in the Bible.

This mistake is similar to what is described by James W. Voelz, What Does This Mean: Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd edition (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), pp. 124-125. "It is important to note that the several different meanings conveyed by the same word, indeed, several different meanings and not part of one "giant" super-meaning."

James Barr refers to this problem as “illegitimate identity transfer” in his Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 217-218).

Vern Poythress warns against this kind of category mistake with his second maxim of symphonic theology: “No term in the Bible is equal to a technical term of systematic theology.” He explains that “if we want to develop technical terms in theology, such as ‘Trinity’ or ‘saving faith,’ we cannot make those terms perfectly match individual Hebrew or Greek vocabulary items. The reason is that we cannot make a word with a precise meaning exactly match a word with a broad, flexible meaning, or one with several shades of meaning in different contexts. If we really succeeded in making some English word “exactly match” a Hebrew or Greek word, the word in English would be just as vague and flexible as the one in Greek or Hebrew; it would not have any of the advantages of technical precision or fixity of meaning. The more precise we make the technical term, the greater the distance it must have from an exact match to any one word of Hebrew or Greek” (Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 75).

In other words, reading our systematic theological meaning into every occurrence of the phrase "son of God" or "God's Son" in the Bible will most likely cause us to misunderstand the passage.

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