Linguistics & Conservative Theology

Over at his new page, Wanna be a Bible Scholar, Patrick McCullough asked a question in the comments after I wrote up a little note about the benefits of studying linguistics as a related field for Biblical studies:

I’d be interested to hear whether you feel many people taking a linguistics angle on biblical studies lean more conservative… i.e., are they pursuing linguistics because they believe in the inerrant and plenary inspiration of the Bible in which every single word comes directly from God?

Since its such a large question, I thought I’d devote a post to the question.

No, I don’t think its a theological issue – at least not entirely. Part of it, I think, is an accident of history I think its because most schools – whether conservative or not – over the course of the past 50-60 years have not been interested in literary, historical and theological questions over those of languages on the assumption that Greek had essentially been figured out – this is easily seen in this RBL Review.

The result has been that much of the linguistics work that has been done in the past two or three decades began with those involved in Bible translation which, as missions work, tends to be populated by theologically conservative Christians – so in that sense there is a connect, albeit indirect. The situation for Hebrew studies has been slightly different since its had much, much more non-Christian work.

So really, its no surprise that the most influential books that have interfaced linguistics and Biblical studies have either come out of those involved with Bible translation or Hebrew scholars:

James Barr – Semantics of Biblical Language (Hebrew Scholar)

Louw, Nida, & Smith – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (Translators/Translation consultants)

[Tangent] (Rondal Smith left the project rather about 3/4’s of the way through – and should really be on the title page as Micheal Palmer lists him). His is another dissertation that has tragically been ignored by Koine Greek studies:

Smith, Rondal Bruce. "Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Interpretations of Greek Phonology: Prolegomena to a Theory of Sound Patterns in the Hellenistic Greek ‘Koine’." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1972.

He’s also a friend of my wife. [/Tangent]

Cotterell & Turner – Linguistics And Biblical Interpretation (connected with missions and translation work)

Stephen Levinsohn – Discourse Features of New Testament Greek (SIL & translation).

Now, this is not to say that there haven’t been others who have done linguistics without “conservative” theology. Robert Funk did some great work with his grammar, as did , Daryl Schmidt with Hellenistic Greek Grammar and Noam Chomsky: Nominalizing Transformations (though transformational grammar hasn’t really taken hold in NT Studies. And in terms of Classical Greek, the framework of Functional Grammar (not Systemic Functional Grammar, they’re different) has had a big impact with classical grammarians/linguists like Bakker, Rijksbaron, Dik, Allan, and others. And beyond Greek, the world of linguistics as a whole is definitely not dominated by Christians at all.

Anyway, some thoughts. Others might have some other thoughts. And they are welcome to add them.

9 thoughts on “Linguistics & Conservative Theology

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the response, Mike. I can see why Hebrew syntax might invite more non-Christian interaction for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the history of the Hebrew language is intimately connected with the history of Israel itself.

    It has seemed to me, though, that a lot of the folks that are dedicated to Greek grammar, at least– if not full blown linguistic theory–are motivated by their view on inspiration. Not that it needs to be the case, that has just been my own experience and observation.

    1. It has seemed to me, though, that a lot of the folks that are dedicated to Greek grammar, at least– if not full blown linguistic theory–are motivated by their view on inspiration.

      I’d agree with that, but I’d make a distinction between linguists the vast majority of NT Greek scholars are committed to a grammatical framework that’s over a hundred years old and often don’t know what a framework is – most seem to think that the only thing that exists in linguistics is Systemics (from Porter) and Chomsky. And those often don’t really know anything about Chomsky beyond Syntactic Structures & Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. You could count the actual linguists, who know the literature on one hand.

  2. I think you have it right about linguistics coming out of translation, not out of theology. A translator I know told me “I am a missionary first. Being a missionary required me to be a translator. Being a translator required me to be a linguist.”

    On the flip side, I think linguists could offer some interesting theological insights into the doctrine of inspiration.

  3. The question itself seems somewhat strange to me, raising a sort of red flag: what sort of presuppositions about the way language works and how it may or must be used by Biblical writers do those who go into language study bring with them? I’m acutely aware of the peril of eisegesis and tend to be suspicious of arguments about language that seem to be adduced in order to prove a proposition of faith.

    1. I don’t know. As I said, I would say that its an indirect relationship. I don’t think the majority of Christians studying linguistics are doing it because of conservative theology. That is, it has more to do with what they want to do with linguistics (make the text available in other languages) rather than what they believe.

      The vast majority of linguists I know all have their doctoral degrees from “secular” institutions and are generally much more “liberal” when its comes to hermeneutics/philosophy of language than most evangelicals. In fact, there are a number of staff at CANIL, where I am studying who are rather frustrated by the lack of serious thought put into questions of hermeneutics, philosophy of language, meaning, and interpretation by evangelicals in general.

      1. hi,
        I too have been concerned about the “distance”
        between all these disciplines:linguistics/theology /applied linguistics and ELTeaching.
        I taught ESP:theology for 26 years and wrote my doctoral thesis about the Masters thesis in theology..a pedagogical issue mainly. While I used Hoey and Swales’ genre analysis findings as models for thesis writing…I adapted their findings a bit in relation to our needs and in the process saw a resemblance between genre analysis and biblical form criticism.I am unable to talk to Western lang.teachers and to Indian theology teachers about this as I,in between ,am an English teacher with interests in both areas. Why this gap?
        Frustrating.Any answers? Anyone like me there? I belong to Ce-Tesol, the Christian educators group and have presented many times in my area.
        Iris Devadason,Ph.D.

  4. Well it depends on the definition of “conservative” (coming from a person who doesn’t like the word). Does “conservative” here mean high authority of Scripture vs low authority or inerrant vs infallible vs …? Or something else?

    Naturally, Christians who de-emphasize the value of Scripture are less likely to spend their career translating it. Just as the bulk of people studying Church Fathers are Catholic and Orthodox.

    If I took a more inerrant view instead of more infallible, I don’t think I’d be more or less interested in linguistics (but that coming from someone who isn’t a linguist).

    But just to play the devil’s advocate, I might say someone into inerrancy is LESS likely to study linguistics. An inerrant-ist is more likely to be scared or disenfranchised by learning that Scripture is a lot messier than God dictating. Just a thought.

    1. I think we’re talking about conservative more broadly than that – probably roughly equivalent with evangelical (which is also a nice fuzzy word).

      If you know of an inerrantist who actually believes that God dictated scripture, I’d like to them. I don’t know any and I went to MBI. The Chicago Statement sometimes gives that impression, but I don’t know anyone so strict. More specifically, I don’t know any inerrantist who treats the Chicago Statement as either inerrant or infallible.

      The question came up (I think) because the vast majority of biblical scholars who are linguists (or linguists who study the Bible) are evangelicals:

      Nida (borderline)
      Louw (borderline)
      and so on…

      But as I said, this is easily traced to missions & translation work, which is typically conservative (broadly speaking) in its theology.

      1. John Calvin, if memory serves. But No, in my brevity I meant people who assume Scriptural inspiration and writing was a clean-cut process.

        Yeah, I can’t stand “evangelical” either. I can’t figure out whether I’m conservative or evangelical, let alone whether others are.

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