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Thursday, September 01, 2005

What is ambiguity?

It has dawned on me that I should have explained in my previous post what ambiguity is. Ambiguity is when something that is said (or written) can be understood in two (or sometimes more) different ways. The following English sentence has often been cited in linguistics texts to illustrate ambiguity:
Flying planes can be dangerous.
That sentence can have two meanings:
1. It can be dangerous to fly planes.
2. It can be dangerous when planes are flying.
In the Greek text of the New Testament there are sometimes cases (no pun intended) where the context of a genitive allows an interpretation as either a subjective genitive or an objective genitive. One example typically cited to illustrate this such ambiguity is the genitive phrase of 2 Cor. 5:14
agape tou Xristou
This could be a subjective genitive referring to God's love for us, as in:
Christ's love compels us (NIV, HCSB)
Christ's love controls us (NLT)
Christ's love guides us (GW)
We are ruled by Christ's love for us. (CEV)
It is the Anointed One’s love that holds us together! (TSNT)
I have found no English versions translating this as an objective genitive ("our love for Christ"). All other Bible versions I checked introduce ambiguity to the translation, using the wording "love of Christ." Translators of such versions believe that because the gentive of 2 Cor. 5:14 is ambiguous to them, it should be translated ambiguously. I believe, however, that Paul did not intend any ambiguity here and so our translation should not introduce ambiguity either.

Dan Wallace believes that the genitive of this verse is both subjective and objective, what he calls a plenary genitive. He says:
"There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, employing double entendre, puns, and the like. To
collapse these texts into a single meaning is to destroy part of the author’s meaning. “The love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 is one such instance;3"

Footnote 3: "3 The meaning is probably both “Christ’s love for us” and “our love for Christ”—that is, the genitive is probably both subjective and objective, or plenary. It is Christ’s love for us that produces our love for him."
I disagree with Wallace if he is referring to biblical authors when he says "There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, ..." That is not how normal human communication works. It is what is sometimes done intentionally by authors, as Wallace mentions. But doing so is more of a language game than part of ordinary communication, IMO. I don't think biblical authors intended ambiguity very often. And I think the burden of proof that there is ambiguity in the biblical text should be on those who claim that there is. It is not sufficient proof that there is ambiguity in analysis of the text.

Interestingly, the footnote for this verse in the NET Bible, on which Wallace was a major editor, is stated more conservatively, however:
The phrase hJ ajgavph tou' Cristou' (Jh agaph tou Cristou, “the love of Christ”) could be translated as either objective genitive (“our love for Christ”) or subjective genitive (“Christ’s love for us”). Either is grammatically possible, but with the reference to Christ’s death for all in the following clauses, a subjective genitive (“Christ’s love for us”) is more likely.
Based on my understanding of the normal lack of intended ambiguity in human communication, I believe it is more likely that Paul intended a single meaning of the genitive here, and I would lean toward that meaning being the subjective, referring to Christ's love for us. But regardless of what Paul intended, we, the analysts know there are at least the subjective and objective genitive meanings possible here, and maybe also a third, that of Wallace's plenary genitive, including both the subjective and objective meanings. The Greek genitive here allows for this ambiguity in meaning. That does not mean that Paul intended any ambiguity here. It is, IMO, most likely that Paul intended one of the possible options:
  1. subjective genitive
  2. objective genitive
  3. plenary genitive
Ambiguity is different from lack of clarity. With lack of clarity, there are not clear, distinct options of interpretation, as there is with ambiguity. Rather, with lack of clarity, the intended meaning is simply not clear. What is said or written is not expressed well.

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At Fri Sep 02, 04:45:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Wayne, for this useful clarification.

I think we should distinguish Wallace's "plenary genitive" from true ambiguity. Intended ambiguity, as you say, is where there are "clear, distinct options of interpretation", intended by the author. But, although Wallace seems to call 2 Corinthians 5:14 "an ambiguous expression", I don't think he means ambiguity in this sense. Rather, his meaning is more like that "the love of Christ" has a broad meaning encompassing both Christ's love for us and our love for Christ and others, something which could perhaps be translated as "Christian love" except that that loses a personal aspect. This is not an ambiguity intended by the author, but a meaningful single meaning of the phrase which may have been intended by the author - although I am not sure that Wallace has succeeded in demonstrating this.

You get close to making my point at the end of your posting, where you refer to "a third [possible meaning], that of Wallace's plenary genitive". But I think this needs to be distinguished clearly from ambiguity as you define it.


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