Chapter 4 is written by Vern S. Poythress, and is entitled TRUTH AND FULLNESS OF MEANING: Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation.
While Poythress is a brilliant scholar, he is also one of the writers that I find most difficult to read. I read his book GOD CENTERED BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1999), and found it very difficult to stay with his train of thought. It was probably my own fault, since everything he said seemed to be important. When I read a book I use a colour marker to mark the important bits, and with his book I found I marked way too much, and as a result I could not deduce from his writings which was more important than the rest. I found this chapter in Translating Truth to be similar. Either he only writes what is important, or I can’t decipher from his writings what is really important.
That said, let’s give this a go!
From the get-go Poythress jumps into the nature of meaning in language and the origins of language. Evolutionists believe that language evolved from grunts to what we have today just like humans evolved from the goo to the zoo to you! Apparently it is a survival mechanism! However, the Bible portrays human language as a necessity from the beginning to serve as communication between God and man. Poythress writes that
“it is plain from Scripture that God designed language in such a way that there can be multi-dimensional, complex, nuanced communication between God and man. God can tell stories, both fictional (parables) and nonfictional. He can expound and reason theologically, as in Romans, and he can express the full range of human emotions, as in the Psalms.” (p115)
Hence, the Bible contains all kinds of written genres such as prose or poetry, history, simple narrative and more. Meaning cannot be reduced to byte-sized isolated sentences thrown together at random. The meaning of a sentence comes from knowing who or what is in the sentence and what the surrounding context is. And, the full meaning only becomes apparent when you get to the end of the particular Biblical book. To discover whether modern theories of meaning are adequate to capture the richness of the Bible, Poythress looks at three technical tools that blossomed in the twentieth century. They are symbolic logic, structural linguistics, and translation theory.
Poythress finds symbolic logic to be obviously reductive in its approach to meaning and so moves on to structural linguistics. In this section Poythress looks at people such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield and Noam Chomsky, who all had impact in this field.
Chomsky laid the foundation of what is known as generative grammar. Chomsky saw language as a set of sentences, where each sentence was of finite length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. This way that Chomsky saw language ignores context altogether. Chomsky’s method is simply a mathematically based analysis of syntax. Chomsky came up with the idea of kernel and nonkernel sentences. A kernel sentence is an active-voice sentence, whereas a nonkernel sentence is a passive-voice sentence. Complex sentences derive from multiple kernel sentences, and “arise from applying optional transformational rules to the original set of kernel sentences.” (p121) Poythress ventures that
“This schema opens the door to the possibility of a semantic analysis in which the meaning of a sentence is the sum of the meanings of the kernel sentences from which it is derived, plus the semantic relations between kernels that are specified by the grammatical links between them. Such an analysis is tempting precisely because in many cases it approximates the truth, and captures some of the core meaning or basic meaning that we associate with a sentence. But as a total account of meaning it is obviously reductionistic.” (p121)
Next, Poythress starts paying attention to Eugene A. Nida, basically the father of Dynamically Equivalent Translation (DET), who published his initial works on translation in 1947 (Bible Translating) and a more theoretically advanced work in 1964 (Toward a Science of Translating). Nida used whatever insights he could garner from Chomsky’s generative grammar. For Nida, meaning could be deconstructed into similar kernel structures between languages, especially in the translation process, in a three-step process. Poythress evaluates this three-step process by listing some of its features. First, reduction is accomplished through ignoring a writer’s idiosyncrasies. Second, meaning is reduced to the meaning of sentences that do not interact with the enfolding context. Third, all figurative expressions re reduced to a literal view. Formal structures in transformational generative grammar can only deal with literal meanings. Fourth, meaning is reduced to the single dimension of linguistic meaning away from emotive, expressive and other dimensions. Fifth, the assumption is that meanings in the original texts are clear and clearly transparent. This is true in some cases, but we all know that the Bible contains obscurities and different depths. Sixth, a nonkernel sentence is reduced to the kernels it is made of. “This move is a genuine reduction, since meanings in fact do not reduce in a simple way to the meanings of kernel structures.” (p126)
Poythress continues to look at Nida’s ideas, especially at Nida’s idea of translation as a “science.” Science tends to be one-dimensional, especially since people will think that translation is a formal, mechanical process. However, dealing with human beings there tend to be built-in complexities and multi-dimensional “relationalities.” While translation work can be a “science” to a limited degree, Poythress feels that interpretation and translation are arts, not sciences.
Poythress certainly is a more technical writer, but at the end he makes his point. The way that DET has advanced, it does carry a danger of being reductionistic and not letting the reader see the multi-dimensional way that the Biblical authors wrote. But, I certainly cannot do justice to Poythress’ chapter without rewriting everything he wrote himself. Therefore, the only solution is to buy the book!
In Part 5—the final part—we will look at Bruce Winter’s chapter called REVELATION VERSUS RHETORIC: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad.