Theological senses

For more than a year, I have been carefully thinking about the meaning of the gospel and I thought I had come to a fundamentally secure understanding of what it was in the New Testament. I was getting ready to write an article about it when I came across an article that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It was a very brief review by Nijay K. Gupta of The Gospel According to Paul: A Reappraisal by Graham H. Twelftree. Gupta writes,

When I first picked up this book, I was a bit worried it would be a somewhat dull word study of euangelion that repeats the dictionaries and lexicons. But I was pleased to find Twelftree’s approach and discussion highly engaging. In brief, Twelftree criticizes simplistic articulations of Paul’s “gospel” that make it out to be a teaching or idea about Jesus. Twelftree proves that it was far more to Paul.

And,

Throughout the book, Twelftree shies away from summarizing Paul’s gospel in a short pithy statement. He treats euangelion as a “polyvalent” term for Paul covering many areas including: Christian tradition about Jesus, Jesus (himself), God’s salvific drama, the salvation experience of people, a message, and something that can (and should) be lived out by God’s people (see 184-193).

I had narrowly focused on the gospel as basically a very specific message, which I was trying to concisely articulate based of Matthew W. Bates’ narratival summary of what the gospel means. In those short statements, I was convinced by Twelftree the gospel was far more than I had understood it to be. I felt I had to go back to the drawing board to incorporate all that I had missed or ignored if I was going to have a more holistic understanding of the gospel. Simply presenting one of the meanings wasn’t good enough so I postponed writing the article.

Recently, I went back to write a different article on another polyvalent theological term because of which I realised highlighting a single meaning was not wrong at all. I was working on the meaning of love in the New Testament and I was initially inspired by Bates’ work to also give it a focused yet precise treatment. Now I was reminded of Twelftree’s observations so I studied things with a wider perspective. I recognised love, like the gospel and many other cardinal theological terms, has a dynamic meaning in the Bible that cannot be limited to one thing. However, as I examined the relevant passages I noticed that different authors shared a common underlying understanding of love. This caused me to realise there is often a coordinating idea, root metaphor, or a controlling narrative that the various dimensions of meaning of such multifaceted terms are organized around. This does not mean the other facets of meaning are not as important. The thing is identifying these core notions is very useful in helping orient a person to navigate the full range of meanings of that particular term.

For example, highlighting the gospel as a narratival message in the manner Bates and C.H. Dodd before him did, actually helps explain the gospel in the nuanced ways Twefltree foregrounds. A tradition about Jesus as we find in the canonical gospels and a salvific drama are both narratives. Since the good news is a narrative about real events with real consequences, people can participate in the narrative of the salvific experience and live it out. This is not to say Twelftree suggests in any capacity that these different facets of meaning are not closely related. The relationship is apparent in his work however, I think it is better to characterise the gospel and other dynamic theological terms not as “polyvalent” but as polysemous.

Polysemy is certainly not a common word. It comes from linguistics and as the name suggests it is about single words or phrases that have multiple meanings. What is important to note in polysemy is that the multiple meanings of the single word or phrase are related. Usually, there is a central meaning whose semantic range is extended over time to express new but related meanings. So in polysemy instead of calling them different meanings because they are related they are different senses.

I think the idea of polysemy should be broadly applied to theological terms and concepts, especially in biblical theology. There are often different theological senses of a theological term or idea. For example, Bates summary of the gospel was part of his book on the meaning of faith in the New Testament, Salvation by Allegiance Alone. He argued the Greek pistis, which is usually translated as faith, should be better understood by the macro-term allegiance with all of its layers of meaning in the New Testament. Similarly, we should recognise key theological terms often have different senses but there is often one coordinating meaning which all the other senses are organized around. This is not only conceptually helpful for a fuller understanding but also practically helpful. The practical sense matters in the New Testament but it is often neglected or poorly understood because we cannot grasp the full extent of meaning. A polysemous understanding helps us recognize the meaning these things should have in the way we live as well.

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