Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Not to Use Colwell's Rule (Part 2)



You'll remember from my last post that Colwell's Rule is often invoked to demonstrate the deity of Christ from John 1:1c. The rule states...

Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article...a predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or 'qualitative' noun solely because of the absence of the article, it should be translated as a definite noun...


[E.C. Colwell, "A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Creek New Testament, JBL 52 (1933); 20].

I noted that there are two problems using this rule to demonstrate Jesus' deity. Dan Wallace (pictured above) mentions both of these in his outstanding Greek grammar. (pp. 256-270). If you don't have this grammar, go repent and then purchase it.

Here is the biggest problem...

(1) People use the converse of Colwell's rule to prove the deity of Christ, but think they are using the rule itself. Colwell was a text-critic, and was interested in issues of translation. He started by finding nouns that were clearly definite in their respective contexts. Then, he asked what structural categories these definite nouns fell into. He discovered that definite predicate nouns which precede the verb are usually anarthrous. Let's be clear on what he did not do. He did not start with an assortment of pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives and then determine that they were usually definite. However, this is what people often assume when employing Colwell's rule to defend Christ's deity.

Here's a helpful way to think about the issue (complements of Dr. Dan, p. 261). I tell you, "it's raining, therefore there are clouds in the sky." You respond by saying, "oh I get it! There are clouds in the sky, therefore it's raining." You have affirmed the converse of what I'm saying, and have committed a logical fallacy. In sum, people misuse Colwell's rule by drawing the wrong inference from it.

(2) If the converse of Colwell's rule applied here, it would create a major theological conundrum. For the sake of argument, let's say that the converse of said rule applies in this instance. Therefore, the word "theos" in the third clause of John 1:1 (theos hen ho logos) can be translated with a definite article. If this is so, and the sentence translates, "and the word was the God", then the "the" before God is anaphoric (pointing us back to the reference to God in 1:1b), and - to make a long story short - Jesus is the Father! As Dr. Dan puts it...

By applying Colwell's rule to John 1:1 [scholars] have jumped out of the frying pan of Arianism and into the fire of Sabellianism.
(p. 258)

When discussing John 1:1, using Colwell's rule is just a bad idea. It is logically flawed, and thank goodness it is! After all, if the converse of the rule applied here, we'd all be Sabellians (which sounds like a type of alien on Star Trek).

So how are we to understand John 1:1c? It is not definite, and I don't think an indefinite article can be inserted here either (I give some explanation as to why here). Not surprisingly, I think Dr. Dan gets it right in maintaining that theos should be interpreted qualitatively (cf. p. 269). The vast majority of NT pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives are qualitative in meaning, and this nuance fits nicely in context. Jesus has the quality of deity; the divine essence. His essence is exactly that of the Father. However, he is not the Father. With brilliant precision and concision, John shows his readers that Jesus is God, but not the Father.

Now, go out and evangelize. Just try not to use Colwell's rule.

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