Reading the Bible in Capital Letters

We had an interesting discussion group tonight, looking at William Barclay’s commentary on John’s gospel. Barclay is thoroughly evangelical, and manages to read his entire theology into every word. I gamely tried to say that sometimes words were just words. I don’t think anyone believed me. So in the last consolation of the defeated, I’m going to say it here on my blog!

Contracts and other legal documentation use Capital Letters on words to indicate that the word is used in a very specific way, according to a specific and consistent idea, that is defined somewhere in the document. In a contract, I might write “This agreement is between Holmes Limited, with a registered address at 221b Baker Street, London (the Customer) and”. Thereafter I can write “The Customer agrees to…” and we know there’s no ambiguity: we can’t be talking about any customer, or even any company at 221b Baker Street, the meaning is definite and intended.

Some Christians tend to read the bible as if it were mostly written in Capital Letters. As if words were not words, so much as specific terms. So when, in John’s gospel, we read

God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

— John 3:16 (tr mine)

it becomes

God so Loved the World that He Gave His only Son, so Whoever Believes in Him might not Perish, but have Eternal Life.

A word like ‘Believe’ has to be read in terms of the whole canon of evangelical thought on what constitutes right and salvific Belief.

This just doesn’t seem a sane approach to me.

Now, sure, John had something in mind when he wrote those words. But what he had in mind was some underlying idea that he chose the word Belief to help communicate, not a definition of Belief. To ask what ‘Belief’ means in that verse is to allow the tail to wag the dog.

He used ‘belief’ for the same reason we all use words: to express part of our intended meaning. And by reading the whole gospel we can perhaps get closer to John’s overall idea of eternal life. For example: we might note that John also says

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life.

–John 6:54 (tr mine)

We use words not to fence off and fortify meanings, but to point towards fuzzy ideas that otherwise would defy description. And we all do that in different ways. Each of us even makes different choices of word at different times to sweep up different allusions, nudge the hearer toward different emotions, and hopefully herd them roughly in the direction we want them to go. In short, we rarely speak in upper case.

Why does this matter?

I think it matters because language is an excellent means of control. If we control the meaning of words, we subtly control the concepts that can be made out of them.

Part of evangelicalism, particularly its fundamentalist threads, is an effort to define and control the use of words in order to discredit and marginalise others who use the same words to express a different theology.

By defining Eternal Life in a particular way, and Belief in a particular way, they can point to John 3:16 and say “The bible says clearly here: if you Believe in him, you have Eternal Life.” And because the slight of hand happened when they defined both terms, you might miss that they’ve only given their own opinion.

It seems obvious to me that the writer of John’s gospel had quite a different idea of eschatology that modern evangelicalism. But I’m going further than that, why do we even assume John had some specific consistent and constrained legal definition in mind at all? Why couldn’t John just be using ‘believe’ here because he felt its existing connotations were the most helpful to make his point? A point that, in other contexts (as in John 6:54) he chose different words to express.

Figuring this out is hard for many evangelicals I think, because evangelical theology is so often about what words mean or what they should mean. Evangelical bible studies focus on getting the meanings of words right (“what is true Belief?”, “what are Spiritual Gifts?”, “how do I Know I am Saved?”). And so, even if you can make an argument that a word doesn’t mean quite what someone thinks it does, the underlying assumption that it has a Capital Letter remains.

What do you think? Have I failed to convince you too?

I’ve written before on a related topic here.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Reading the Bible in Capital Letters

  1. So obsessed with denotation, the evangelical insistence on Capital Letter terms entirely loses the sense of connotation, of those things which can’t be seen straight-on but only out of the corner of one’s eye. Being adamant about Mystery simply doesn’t fly right.

  2. Part of evangelicalism, particularly its fundamentalist threads, is an effort to define and control the use of words in order to discredit and marginalise others who use the same words to express a different theology.

    Yes, I notice this, though I suspect it is a conservative thing, not only an evangelical thing. Conservatives don’t like change, and a change in the meaning of words is particularly resented.

    I sometimes wonder whether they troubled by the change in meaning of the word “gay”, and now the evolving of the meaning of “marriage” far more than they are bothered by the gay life style.

    We see similar rigidity about meanings in the strict constructivist view of the US constitution.

  3. Rob

    Barclay on ‘evangelical': “It has always been to me a matter of deep regret that the word evangelical must in the eyes of some people always by preceded by the word conservative – a conservative evangelical. An evangelical is surely one who loves the good news of God in Jesus Christ, and I cannot see why there should be no such thing as a liberal evangelical.” I don’t think of him as an evangelical but someone who thinks you can get nearer to the meaning of a text by close entomological work and whose conclusions are usually more ethical than dogmatic.

    As I think I said last night, I reckon he’s missed a whole chunk of what John has in mind by ‘belief’, but I can’t really cavil with him for wanting to help us find out. As Barclay says, the notion of believing and the vocabulary item denoting that notion and the act associated with an apprehension of that notion are all present in the introduction of ‘John’s’ gospel and in the conclusion and at some prominent places in between. I don’t suppose he really thinks each word is of equal importance. Bit of a straw man, that. That’s more Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s method. Oops.

    By the way, I know it’s ‘etymological’ but everyone reading this knows it’s ‘etymological’, so does it really matter what word I use?

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  5. Ian

    Barclay on ‘evangelical’

    But that’s really the problem. He sees everything in terms of definition, and wants to fight over what it means. And many evangelicals do: “it simply means one who spreads the good news”, yes, okay, so Spong is an evangelical, then? Oh, no. He can’t possibly be evangelical, he doesn’t even believe in a literal God! Do you see the power game over definitions inherent in that mindset?

    thinks you can get nearer to the meaning of a text by close entomological work

    Have you come across Silva’s “Biblical Words and Their Meaning”? It’s an OT book, but (as I understand it) was a key instigator of the move away from etymological analysis as the basis of hermeneutics. [edit: From what I can see, it is actually Silva’s supervisor James Barr’s work “The Semantics of Biblical Language”, 20 years earlier than I thought, that started the discrediting of etymological approaches to determining the meaning of single words in isolation.]

    As far as I know (and perhaps the NT scholars who read this can correct me), this is thoroughly part of linguistic theory and is now pretty universal in secular biblical criticism [Edit: I notice this post from Larry Hurtado who claims the naivite still persists more than it should]. The book is partly an extended argument that words aren’t used in a way that carries around with them this huge list of implications that can be applied to each use.

    As Barclay says, the notion of believing and the vocabulary item denoting that notion and the act associated with an apprehension of that notion are all present in the introduction of ‘John’s’ gospel and in the conclusion and at some prominent places in between.

    Only if you assume your conclusion. Without assuming capital letters, I simply don’t get how you can find in John 1 the idea that Belief should be henceforth understood as a jargon term with a specific set of meanings.

    I don’t suppose he really thinks each word is of equal importance. Bit of a straw man, that.

    Its a good job I didn’t say anything about importance then. In legal documents all Capitalised words aren’t of equal importance either. The issue is whether one should consider the use of a word to imply that the word has a specific and inherent set of meanings, or whether one should read the word in a non-technical sense as a way of the author evoking the meaning they intend.

    All this is not the worst thing you can do to the bible, of course. It just strikes me as eisegetical (which, I’d content most faithful exegesis is, at some level), and rather old-fashioned.

  6. As far as the ‘evangelical’ thing is concerned, I see Barclay much more as a victim than an aggressor. I’d like to look for that Martyn Lloyd-Jones quote about him being the most dangerous man in Christendom, but Catherine has turned all my books sideways, so I can’t see the spines. Oh well . . .

    Doesn’t “He sees everything in terms of definition, and wants to fight over what it means”, along with the satirical capitalisation of each word in John 3:16 amount to roughly the same as, “He really thinks each word is of equal importance”? Perhaps that bit is no longer about Barclay? Either way, there’s your straw man, right there – the twerp who doesn’t know how to read a text for gist, for enjoyment. Might as well capitalise it all, including ‘the’, ‘that’ etc.

    I still think the author of John’s gospel uses belief words so insistently and prominently that it seems more than likely he wants us to know what belief is and that he or she would be happy to give us a definition if we could ask him or her. Lots of people think entomological work can get you quite a long way towards finding out what that definition might be. I got told off years ago for reading Wordsworth as if he was a philosopher not a poet but I wasn’t entirely convinced even then and I think I’d be prepared to take a similar risk with John.

    By the way, I did enjoy the works of Jimmy Barr a lot when I was a much younger chap (Fundamentalism in particular and a popularisation of his stuff called Faith Without Pretending by Anne Townsend). In fact, that reading is largely responsible for my no longer preaching word by word through passages!

  7. Incidentally, now I’ve written this, does the popularity of your blog mean that ‘they’ will send the boys round to sort me out? If so, I’m going underground.

  8. Ian

    Doesn’t “He sees everything in terms of definition, and wants to fight over what it means”, along with the satirical capitalisation of each word in John 3:16 amount to roughly the same as, “He really thinks each word is of equal importance”?

    No, not that I can see. Importance is a red herring. Whatever it is I’m claiming, it isn’t that.

    What I’m suggesting is, if we sat Barclay down (as a proxy for this mindset) and said “Let’s look at John 3:16 – what does ‘Belief’ mean?” – he’d give a big list of what is contained in that word, as he does in the commentary. If we asked “what does Eternal Life mean?” – another theology dump. I think that much is obvious. But perhaps where I’m going out on a limb is the suggestion we could do that for almost every word “what does Whoever mean?” – there’s a good evangelical answer to that, even. I suggest, in this imaginary conversation, we’d have to get virtually down to “what does ‘in’ mean?” before we’d get an answer like “don’t be silly, it just means what it always means.” The answer I’m suggesting we should get to question 1.

    I’m basing this on the fact that, we’re not even 4 verses into the gospel yet, and we’ve had a long series of Special Definitions already. In fact, the whole rhythm of the study seems to be to pick a Special Word, and enumerate all the constituent meanings of it. And the problem with that, is that we get drawn into discussing whether we agree with the meanings, which seems ass-backwards to me.

    Now, discussing this at length in this way, can overstate the degree to which I have a problem with it. I think it is a highly tendentious practice, but treated as a theological ‘game’ (in the non-pejorative sense), I can play along. I just find it regrettable that it is presented as a bible study, rather than a study in evangelical theology.

    I’d prefer to let the text speak for itself. If John has a coherent and specific notion of ‘Belief’, then he should be allowed to build that case. Rather than bringing all our theological baggage (definitely extra-Johannine, in Barclay), dumping it on every word, pretending that’s what it ‘means’, and imagining we’re better understanding John’s gospel as a result.

    still think the author of John’s gospel uses belief words so insistently and prominently that it seems more than likely he wants us to know what belief is

    Fair enough, each to their own. I 90% disagree, but perhaps only that. I think he wants us to understand what he thinks is correct theology, and uses whatever words he feels would best lead us to that point. He uses a word more when he feels it communicates better what he is trying to say, as we all do.

    And, further, I think that should be the presumption of all uses of language, unless we have solid reasons to think there is a Special Definition at work.

    How many other terms in John 3:16 would you capitalize, then? I get you find my caricature of capitalising most of the words slightly offensive. But where would you use metaphorical uppercase? God (I’d agree), Eternal Life, Only Son (I’d only partially agree with those two), Believe, Perish, Love (I suspect you’d stop hereabouts), Whoever?

    Like all black and white issues, this is a spectrum of greys. Nobody sane would be at either extreme. But Barclay seems to be far further down the black end, and far more certain that he’s right, than I think is at all credible.

    [Since you repeated it, I did spot the bug in your original comment – I just didn’t respond because I couldn’t see how it was relevant – so feel free to bring it forefront and have it do some work, if it is important to you.]

  9. You remember that it wasn’t my choice to do Barclay on John. Now we are doing it, though, I’m reminded of all I like about Barclay.

    In my opinion he’s a really good communicator. He thinks you can find out a lot about the meaning of the text by looking closely at words the writer gives prominence and I think that too.

    It’s true that we are only on verse 4 but I comfort myself with the thought that he doesn’t go on like that for the whole gospel. I also tell myself that the Prologue is not typical of the rest of the gospel and that it has rightly attracted a lot of comment so deserves a bit more space.

    Because he is a good communicator, it is often quite easy to spot points where one might disagree with him. For example, I think we had a good discussion about his characterisation of God across the testaments. I think the discussion about his description of belief was a good one as well because I think more than one of us felt there was an element missing and that his thinking on the consequences of Christian believing was too optimistic.

    I value Barclay’s ability to bring to life some of the ideas that the writer of the gospel very possibly knew about. Of course, it’s not Barclay’s fault that his scholarship is not up to date although I understand his editors have tried to do something about that but quite discreetly.

    I think that theologically, Barclay doesn’t have all that many designs on me compared with many evangelicals. I always feel he wants to improve me with what I think is a humanist agenda. I feel that he wants to help me understand. That he is able to help me. I like that.

  10. Ian

    I’m not being nasty about the choice of material, just voicing why I was disappointed with his section on Belief. A section you also disagreed with, just for different reasons.

    As I said, it is very easy to read this thread and overestimate my problem with it. I just wanted to share more widely what I’d realised was the core of my issue with the book so far.

    I think, for example, his sketch of the greek and jewish influences on John was really fun. Sure scholarship moves on. You wouldn’t write the bit about gnosticism in the same way now, for example, but it would only be a difference in nuance. I’ve no problem with the age of the book at all.

    It is no secret that I have a problem with evangelical theology (to put it very mildly), and its no surprise that my views are in a minority of one in a group like ours. So I’m happy to keep the root of the disagreements for the blog and venues outside.

  11. Ran into this by accident, looking for something else, but it’s fascinating. The idea of pinning down definitions is similar to the idea of pinning down rules, as many churches want to do. What we really want is to pin down God. And he won’t cooperate.

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