Modern Linguistics Versus Traditional Hermeneutics -- By: Robert L. Thomas
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Modern Linguistics Versus Traditional Hermeneutics
Professor of New Testament
An emerging field of study among evangelicals goes by the name modern linguistics. Its terminology, self-appraisal, approach to language analysis, and relationship to traditional exegesis furnish an introduction to a comparison with grammatical-historical hermeneutics. Indispensable to an analysis of modern linguistics is a grasping of its preunderstanding--its placing of the language of the Bible into the same category as all human languages and its integration with other secular disciplines--and the effect that preunderstanding has on its interpretation of the biblical text. Its conflicts with grammatical-historical principles include a questioning of the uniqueness of the biblical languages, its differing in the handling of lexical and grammatical elements of the text, its differing in regard to the importance of authorial intention, its lessening of precision in interpretation, its elevating of the primacy of discourse, its elevating of the impact of stylistic considerations, and a questioning of the feasibility of understanding the text in a literal way. Such contrasts mark the wide divergence of modern linguistics from traditional grammatical-historical interpretation.
Introductory Facts about Modern Linguistics1
“Modern linguistics” is the chosen title for an emerging field of studies that has potential for radically affecting many long-held principles of biblical interpretation. Though it so recent that it does not yet have widespread-agreed-upon
MSJ 14:1 (Spring 2003) p. 24
terminology, the discipline has adopted some terms that may not be familiar to most. “Phonology” refers to the elementary sounds of language (phonemes), “morphology” to the smallest meaningful units of language (morphemes), “syntax” to the formation of phrases and sentences from these smaller units, and “semantics” to the meanings of morphemes and words and various ways to construct larger units. “Discourse” is a structural portion of language longer than a sentence.
Modern linguists look upon their approach to language as indispensable to an interpretation of Scripture. They profess to trace a thought as it begins in the human mind to physiological abilities in making sounds to how these sounds become words, then sentences, paragraphs, and discourse. Following this sequence leads them to be strongly critical of what have been viewed as standard lexical works for NT study because of those works’ neglect of discourse, sentences, and paragraphs. At the present stage in the development of modern linguistics, much uncertainty p...
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