Poythress Summarizes James Barr

Vern Poythress’s book “Symphonic Theology” is available free at his site. Today I was searching my hard drive for a summary of James Barr’s list of common exegetical fallacies in his famous and deservedly influential book, The Semantics of Biblical Language. I regularly employ the third and fifth concepts below. I consider them very important. Take a look at Poythress’ summary:

James Barr has published a long catalog of mistakes made by biblical scholars. Without going into detail, I list six of the most common errors that he cites.

Attempts to deduce theological conclusions directly from the grammatical structure of a language. For example, Thorlief Boman tries to deduce a philosophical concept of time from the Hebrew tense system (pp. 79-81).

Attempts to deduce theological conclusions directly from the number and relation of vocabulary synonyms. For example, Edmond Jacob attempts to deduce the fluidity of the concept of miracles from the fact that several different terms are used (p. 147).

Attempts to use etymology instead of the current meaning of a word, even when the current meaning is well known. For example, “holy” and “healthy” are etymologically related, but they do not now mean the same thing, and it is just confusing to say that they do (p. 111).

Attempts to deduce a particular world view on the basis of combining the various senses of a single word. The Hebrew word dabar sometimes means “word,” sometimes “matter” or “thing,” depending on the context. But Thomas F. Torrance wrongly draws the conclusion that often it means both at the same time (p. 133).

“Illegitimate totality transfer.” The various meanings that a word has in all its contexts in the Bible are all read into a single passage (p. 218). For example, because the Bible teaches in various places that the church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, and a manifestation of the kingdom of God, people may think that ekklesia (“church”) means all of these things together whenever it occurs.

“Illegitimate identity transfer.” Because two words refer to the same thing, the two words must mean the same thing (pp. 217-218). For example, the Hebrew word dabar (“thing”) is sometimes used to refer to a historical event, and the word “history” can also be used to refer to the same event, but it is wrong to conclude that dabar means “history.” As a parallel illustration, note that we can designate the same person both as “the brightest student in the class” and as “the only redhead in my family.” Although the two descriptions refer to the same person, they do not have the same meaning. “Student” does not mean the same as “redhead,” or “class” the same as “family.”

—from Twelve Maxims of Symphonic Theology

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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