A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Exegetical principles and 1 John 1:8

Let me start off this post by saying I am not a Greek expert. I have studied Greek gammar a lot (I used to pull out Daniel Wallace’s grammar daily), but I have not taken a course in it year (will do this fall for seminary). I have also just studied the nature of language (linguistics), but again I am not expert.

I was lookin at 1 John 1:8 tonight and I noticed this note from the NET Bible regarding the phrase “If we say we have no sin”/”If we say we have no guilt of sin” (as the NET translates it):

The use of ἔχω + ἁμαρτία (ecw + Jamartia) is an expression limited to John and 1 John in the NT. On the analogy with other constructions where ἔχω governs an abstract noun (e.g., 1Jo_1:3; 1Jo_1:6; 1Jo_1:7; 1Jo_2:28; 1Jo_3:3; 1Jo_3:15; 1Jo_3:21; 1Jo_4:16; 1Jo_4:17; 1Jo_5:12-13), it indicates that a state is involved, which in the case of ἁμαρτία would refer to a state of sin. The four times the expression ἔχω + ἁμαρτία occurs in the Gospel of John (Joh_9:41; Joh_15:22; Joh_15:24; Joh_19:11) all refer to situations where a wrong action has been committed or a wrong attitude has already existed, resulting in a state of sin, and then something else happens which further emphasizes the evil of that action or attitude. Here in 1Jo_1:8 the sense is the same.

In the note, the NET tries to justify its translation by referring to similar usages of the Greek in the Gospel of John. And while it is certainly something worthy to note, I feel like this exemplifies two errors in the realm of exegesis.

A) The assumption that a usage of a certain phrase or word is consistent throughout all writings of the same author. This becomes especially true when we can find the type of phrase within only one, or a small sample, of the writings of the author. In referencing only one literary instance, the NET committee assumed that John could not have used a similar phrase but in a different way. Perhaps the context of the usage is different (which I will argue in a moment). Or perhaps the person himself has changed his language usage. For instance, people assumed the Pastorals are not genuinely from Paul because of a change in language, or that he uses certain words (like righteousness) in a different manner than in other writings attributed to him. Similar usages in other places does help to reveal meaning, but it can not be the sole basis. It must be joined in with other exegetical principles to put together the puzzle.

B) Another assumption is that a word that is more generic and common, when used in a certain way will always be translated similarily. The word for “have” in the Greek (ἔχω), is a rather generic and frequent word, used 574 times in the New Testament. In principle, the more generic a word, the more fluid its usage may be. Likewise, the same principle would apply within constructions. The NET tries to force a generic word to come to have a more technical meaning, and so constrain it more than its usage would indicate.

Now both of those practices are in themselves okay to use in exegesis, as they may reveal. But what the NET does is it does not adequately consider the context of the usage itself. In the verse 7, the author uses the singular for sin in the phrase “all sin.” Then in verse 8, the phrase is similar but opposite in “no sin.” It would be more reasonable to perceive the word, especially the singular, to having the same meaning in both places. And if we press on to verse 9, “cleanse” is used right next to “forgive,” which indicates “cleanse” is not to be taken in the sense of forgiveness, but rather as perhaps more about a change or removal of some inclination. So in using that for verse 7, it would reveal the notion of sin is that it is a removal of the inclination to sin. So then, when we turn to verse 8, we would see John as saying “If we deny that we have any inclination to sin…”

This means that 1 John 1:8 is not about saying that we all commit acts of sin, as it is used to say. Nor is John trying to say that we all have some guilt for sin. Rather, he is trying to say that everyone has some struggle essentially that they need the sacrifice of Christ to free them from.

Now my exegesis may be mistaken in some way, but my point is that immediate context must be the primary driving force in interpretation, unless there is a pleathora of evidence that points to a different interpretation. Otherwise, our exegesis becomes very susceptible to confirmation bias as we can subconsciously select that that favor our arguent and filter out that which might point another way and our interpretation fails to be challenged, all without any ill intent on the part of the interpreter.


August 11, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment