Thursday, December 01, 2005

Silva's "Greek Fathers Principle" revisited

The 'Greek fathers' (GF) Principle for modern exegesis (based on an essay in Interpreting Galatians, by M Silva, p. 29-31)

  1. The commentaries of the Greek fathers (e.g. Chrysostom) on the Greek NT can help in the task of exegesis given that they were native Greek speakers. This remains true given a number of qualifications:
    a. The potential for 'semantic shifts' in the centuries that separate them from Paul
    b. The fathers own brand of Greek through which they read the NT: "Chrysostom apparently sought to understand the NT on the assumption that it was written in 'good Greek'" – which it was not.
    c. Just being a native speaker doesn't automatically mean that they are capable of giving an accurate syntactical or semantic account. "Educated speakers in particular are notoriously unreliable guides". In what way? The GF's reading of Greek, especially when we are aware of a textual ambiguity and they simply assume "that one of the possible meanings is the right one", is at this point "strong evidence for the way a native speaker would naturally understand the language". However, when a GF like Chrysostom "self-consciously analyses the language", then things can go pear-shaped. Native speakers are best when they use their language rather than reflect on it!

  2. And so the principle can be adjusted to read: The GF commentaries are useful aids in the task of exegesis as one voice among many, especially when we are aware of a textual ambiguity, and they simply assume "that one of the possible meanings is the right one".
This obviously has some direct and important consequence. E.g., "It is interesting that most of the Church Fathers were quite clear in their belief that the phrase 'the righteousness of God' referred in the first place to an attribute of God and secondly to a derived attribute of believers … and not to something like the concept of God's covenant faithfulness" (Witherington, Paul's Letter to the Romans, p. 54 fn.15). Silva himself, in response to Hays and his subjective genitive reading of pistiς Ihsou Xristou, uses this principle as evidence for the objective genitive reading ('faith in Jesus Christ').

A quick critique
  1. However, is it fair to suggest that native speakers get their own language muddled when they explain syntax and vocab, or is it simply that their explanation is not good, but their usage remains normative? As an Englishman living in Germany doing all kinds of English-language proof-reading for German speakers, I will certainly know the correct way of understanding and expressing the English text, even if my ability to find the correct grammatical terms is lacking (which it sadly is a lot of the time). My German wife (an English teacher), for example, has a far better grasp of English grammar's theoretical terminology. Yet I can still better discern what the correct English is, being a native speaker, without necessarily being able to explain it as well! Nevertheless, my grammatical or semantic decision will be (mostly!) correct. I submit that Silva has mixed poor explanation of language with its nevertheless correct understanding. Bang goes one of Silva's points above?
  2. Furthermore, an exegetical decision about the meaning of 'the righteousness of God' or 'pistiς Ihsou Xristou' in the GFs will be a result not just of their grasp of Greek, but the hermeneutical and conceptual frameworks they bring to the text. When this is understood, it is no surprise that they understand these important phrases the way they (arguably anachronistically) did!


At 12/01/2005 7:45 PM, Blogger Paulos said...

An excellent corrective to Silva's argument!

At 12/02/2005 1:02 AM, Blogger Ben Myers said...

Your critique #1 is an excellent point, Chris. For a few years I taught an introductory course in English grammar to first-year undergraduates. The highest marks would consistently go to the non-native speakers -- often they could only communicate poorly, but their conceptual grasp of the language was far better than that of the native speakers. But a language-learner's proficiency in grammar hardly makes him a better interpreter of the language than a native speaker. After all, a native speaker's great strength is precisely his intuition, which is something that simply cannot be learned.

At 12/02/2005 9:54 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Anja, my wife, has just voted this the most boring post I've ever written, and so it was nice to read your comments!

At 12/02/2005 11:48 AM, Blogger Ben Myers said...

Well, that must mean she actually reads all these posts! My wife already knows in advance that all my posts will be intolerably boring -- and thus she has no reason to read any of them.

Anyway, I'm sure Anja will find your new post about insects much more interesting.

At 12/03/2005 4:32 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Well you're right, Ben, she found the insect one far better.
Speaking of wives, I think I read somewhere that yours memorised the whole of Romans! Did I read right?

At 12/04/2005 11:05 PM, Blogger Ben Myers said...

Yes, she decided it would be a good idea to memorise Romans, so she went ahead and did it (it took several weeks). But she never told anyone (except me) -- so don't tell her I told you!


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