Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Unmarked Meaning

Modern exegesis is plagued by word studies that have gone awry simply because the methodology employed by would-be lexicographers is seriously flawed. Yet, one's entire perception of what is being said by a particular bible passage is often directed by these faulty word studies. One of the consistently applied fallacies is to ignore the default of the unmarked meaning of a word for a contextual referent.

The unmarked meaning of a word is whatever the culture using the word thinks of when the word is spoken absent of context. For instance, if the word "dog" is used without any other context, inevitably one will think of the four-footed animal, even though species will vary until further context is provided.

Once contextual referents are provided, the word can be seen to refer to a particular species, a human being who is either in favor or disfavor, a Gentile, a popular reality show star, or even one's feet. It can be coupled in a collocation with fight to refer to an air battle between planes, or refer to a popular food by collocating it with the word hot.

Lexicons will often categorize the various uses of the word by the referents. This has often given the lay reader, as well as many a professor, the false idea that the word can actually mean the things to which it refers in various contexts. But the word does not mean any of these. It merely refers to them given the right context. The word actually just describes an animal in its unmarked meaning. The other uses are often etymologically derived from the unmarked meaning in some way, but the expanse of the semantic range is due to the contextual referents nuancing the meaning, not to something inherently present in the word itself.

This is, precisely, why referential nuances of a word cannot be carried over from one context to the other, as the word itself does not contain the referent within itself.

Take, for instance, the word sōma in Scripture. Many people will attempt to argue that the word can mean "the church." This, however, is based on a faulty understanding of how words actually work. Absent of any explicit referent, or obvious metaphor due to the impossibility of the unmarked meaning, that links the word to the church or another referent in the context, the word should retain its unmarked meaning of "form" or "body." The attempt to carry referents into texts where they do not appear will lead to a complete twisting of what the text is saying (e.g., attempting to argue that 1 Corinthians 15 or Romans 6-8 is about the "body of the church" or "body of the old covenant community" is rife with this fallacy).

In other words, the unmarked meaning should be assumed unless there is sufficient reason to believe that the contextual referents involved are expanding its semantic range to refer to something other than that originally described by its unmarked designation. The alternative interpretations of the word are not on equal par with the interpretation that follows this general rule. The interpreter who follows it has likely come to the right interpretation, whereas the interpeter who does not has likely misidentified the meaning of the word and has ignored the passage in the process.

Collocations function also as contextual referents that may provide new unmarked meanings when stated together, but the individual words themselves do not carry this unmarked meaning when spoken in isolation.

So when one comes to a passage, the assumption of the unmarked meaning as a default is extremely helpful in determining the meaning and not falling into the bottomless abyss of context replacement that inevitably occurs when one begins to change the meanings of the words by illegitimately transferring the referents from one context to another. In order to supply the text with these new referents, the actual referents in the context must be ignored or also distorted, and this is where we needlessly land on many different wild interpretations of biblical texts.

We see, then, that good exegesis can lead to unity in the church, but bad exegesis can lead to disunity and discord. This is probably nowhere truer than in the area of word studies, so I hope these posts on exegesis and lexicography will aid the church in its knowledge of the Lord and its unity of mind as we seek to serve Him.

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