[K:NWTS 3/2 (Sep 1988) 33-45]

Kittel and Biblical Theology: A Review

Steven M. Baugh

It would certainly be anachronistic to write a standard book review now of Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT or Kittel), since it was translated over 20 years ago (1963-76) from a German edition begun some 30 years before that (1932-73)! Our purpose instead is to consider the TDNT's value for pastors and teachers in the specific exercise of biblical-theological exegesis for preaching and teaching ministries. This also seems a good occasion to reflect upon the role of words and phrases in the process of biblical-theological interpretation, since Kittel organizes his work around individual words rather than around theological topics like other theological dictionaries.

The Purpose of Kittel

In the original preface, Kittel explains that his Worterbuch extends the work of Hermann Cremer's Biblico-Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Greek Usage (1878). The distinctive mark of Cremer's work was not biblical-theology per se, but a controversial position that the New Testament represents a peculiar dialect of Greek invented by the biblical writers who used old (secular) Greek words to convey new, theological meanings. This was the so-called "Holy Spirit dialect" that Gustav Deissmann and Richard Moulton among others were trying to disprove.

Kittel sees the TDNT as an extension of Cremer's work in that it concentrates upon "internal" versus "external lexicography." These curious terms distinguish the usual concern of dictionaries and lexicons to provide a range of English word substitutes for a given Greek word ("external lexicography") with Kittel's focus upon the theological concepts which these words might convey ("internal lexicography"). The TDNT was intended to be a series of studies upon theological concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), rather than a traditional dictionary.

Kittel's method contains some crucial flaws which should make us cautious about accepting some of the TDNT's results uncritically. James Barr has exposed some of these flaws in his well known book, Semantics of Biblical Language (1961). His primary criticism is of Kittel's "failure to get to grips with the semantic value of words in their contexts" (Barr, 231).

Furthermore, Kittel's work is a study of theological ideas, but it is based upon individual words which are usually not the same thing. For example, the complex theological idea of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice is not fully communicated by any one word in the Bible, but by a series of words, phrases, events and institutions such as: "propitiation," "sin-offering," "cross," "to cover," "lamb," "scapegoat," etc. In Kittel's writings elsewhere, it is clear that he confuses "concept" (Begriff) with "word" (Wort). The result of Kittel's method is the possibility that "the word becomes overloaded with interpretative suggestion" (Barr, 234).

Happily though, the TDNT is a highly diverse work embodying various lexicographical methods. The first few volumes under Kittel's oversight did indeed downplay "external lexicography." For instance, the article on artos ("bread") in Vol. I has almost no discussion of this word outside the New Testament. Yet later volumes seem to include more standard lexical discussion; e.g., in Vol. VI Cullmann gives two pages to a discussion of the use of petra ("rock") in "profane" Greek, the LXX and to the Old Testament Hebrew equivalent; and in Vol. V Schneider uses a full page of small type in the article on xulon ("tree") telling us that the verb form means "to scrape," a German word is related to it, and that the noun can mean "club," "stick," "collar," "stake," etc. in Classical usage. Even Kittel himself could not resist some "external lexicography" when he discusses emeth ("truth") in Rabbinic Judaism in the article on aletheia.

The wide range of theological positions represented by the contributors to the TDNT also makes this work quite diverse; one finds everything from the existentialist Rudolph Bultmann to the more conservative Joachim Jeremias. Some of the articles are disappointing; for instance the rich, eschatological image communicated by the phrase "downpayment of the Spirit" in 2 Cor. 1:22 (cf. Eph. 1:14) deserves more than the terse one half page in Vol. I (see: arrabon). On the other hand, the TDNT can provide articles of the highest quality which are very suggestive for the biblical theologian. Examples of such articles and how they can be utilized will be included in the following discussion on word studies.

Why Do Word Studies?

Often word studies are performed without a clear purpose. I have isolated here three distinct goals of word studies, but there may be more. Let me clarify here that I am also including the study of certain word combinations which can form a distinct semantic unit. "Sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2) as a whole means something different than what "sons" and "disobedience" mean individually in other contexts.

The first and most common purpose of word study is to isolate the precise meaning of a word in a particular passage. This is especially important both for rare words whose meaning is not clear and for more common words which have several distinct and possibly unrelated meanings.

An example of a rare word is elenchos which occurs in the New Testament only in Heb. 11:1. Normally this term is given a subjective meaning: "faith is . . . being certain" (NIV) or "conviction" (NASB). Yet Buchsel in his TDNT article (Vol. II) correctly shows that this word never has a subjective sense in Greek usage, but means "proof" or "evidence" (KJV; NASB margin) of the sort entered in a law court.

An example of a common word with distinct meanings is akoe which can either mean the sense or activity of "hearing" (Mk. 7:35) or the thing that is heard, a "report," "message" or "preaching" in the New Testament (1 Thess. 2:13). One passage which requires careful study is Gal. 3:2 where the Spirit is either received through "believing hearing" (cf. NASB, RSV, TEV) or through "the 'preaching of faith,' i.e., proclamation which has faith as its content and goal" (TDNT, Vol., I; cf. NIV). Another example of distinct meanings for one word is xulon. The TDNT article in Vol. V points out its common meaning as "wood" in Luke 23:31 and 1 Cor. 3:12, or as "cudgel" in Mt. 26:47, 55, but in 1 Pet. 2:24 this word means "tree" as a reference to the cross which would normally be communicated in Greek by stauros. Therefore the word study is justified in order to identify the precise meaning of certain words in their contexts.

The second use of word studies is to gain an understanding of the nuance or connotation of certain words including technical terms. This function arises from an awareness that words are often used only in certain contexts and such words or phrases are "colored" by these contexts. For example, compare these two statements: "I spent three years in seminary" and "I did three years time in seminary." The first sentence is a plain statement of fact, but the second adds the nuance of the speaker's negative attitude toward the experience by using a special verb formation. "To do time" carries its prison context with it wherever it goes.

An example of a New Testament Greek word group that both illustrates the type of word used in particular contexts and also the TDNT method of analysis is the agon group. I once heard a sermon on 1 Tim. 6:12 where the preacher said that the Greek word agonizomai means "to agonize," therefore the congregation was exhorted to 'agonize over the faith.' Unfortunately the English word has a different meaning and nuance than the Greek word whence it is derived. The element of emotional anguish communicated by "agonize" is not found in agonizomai which is an athletic and military term: "to contest for a prize," "to fight" also used metaphorically for engaging in a legal "contest" or "debate" (agon). Thus Paul is not exhorting Timothy to experience mental anxiety in 1 Tim. 6:12, but to struggle for Christianity like a good athlete or warrior.

The TDNT article in Vol. I does justice to the nuances in Greek of the agon word group, however it is clear that the author is discussing the concept of "fighting for the faith" in addition to the meaning of the words used. The author speaks of "five motifs of thought" communicated by "these concepts"–i.e., the words agon and agonizomai–the fight of faith has the goal of eternal life, requires self-denial, is supremely expressed in martyrdom, etc. The danger here is to read all of these things into the words agon and agonizomai which in and of themselves have simple meanings restricted to their particular contexts. The goal and nature of the Christian fight is expressed in the full sentences and contexts in which these and other words are used, but not in the words individually. Thus martyrdom is not implicit in agonizou in 1 Tim. 6:12, and the context shows that it is probably not in view in this passage.

Another example of the nuances of words relates to technical terms (cf. Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning [1983], 107 et passim). The Greek word philos usually seems clear enough as the equivalent of English "friend" as, for instance, when Jesus calls his disciples his friends (Jn. 15:14). However, there are technical uses of the Greek word which do not necessarily express personal relations as English "friend" does. For example, it is possible that Paul's philoi, the Asiarchs, in Acts 19:31 were business acquaintances, although personal friendship is not ruled out by the context.

A richer example of a technical nuance is found in John 19:12 where the Jewish leaders threaten Pontius Pilate by saying, "If you release this man, you are no 'friend of Caesar.'" Stahlin in the TDNT article on philos (Vol. IX) points out that although philos here is not a "full technical term," it is a "political term . . . associated with the common court title." The phrase 'friend of Caesar' (Lat. amicus Caesaris) denoted at that period a special inner circle of imperial confidants, so philos in conjunction with "Caesar" here is a technical, political term rather than a personal relation. Stahlin could also have pointed out that if the trial of Jesus took place in 33 A. D. as some think, Pilate would have been very sensitive to such a threat since his patron, L. Aelius Sejanus, had overstepped his power and been put to death by the Emperor Tiberius in 31 A. D. Even a rumor of disloyalty by Pilate as an associate of Sejanus would be enough for the broody, unpredictable emperor to do away with him. Here the simple Greek phrase "the friend of Caesar" takes on new meaning in this historical context.

The Word Study and Biblical Theology

The third use of word studies is in the service of biblical theology. In many cases the study of individual words is not the key technique for the discovery of biblical-theological themes. Often, a biblical motif is communicated by many words, phrases or events, so that a dictionary such as Leon-Dufour's Dictionary of Biblical Theology (see Kerux September, 1987) is well organized around theological concepts rather than around Greek and Hebrew words.

Yet biblical theology contains an important presupposition which makes the connections of individual words between passages relevant for biblical themes. Geerhardus Vos expresses this position when he says: "Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity" (original emphasis; Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation [1980], 15). The key phrase here is "organic progress" of revelation. Biblical theology sees the biblical revelation as connected from start to finish as the revelation of the Savior and his work. It does recognize differences in form (i.e., Vos's "multiformity" above), yet all revelation is organically related just as the huge oak is related to the acorn whence it sprung and vice versa. The form varies as it grows, but the substance is the same. With this in mind, we can expect there to be a stratum of verbal references–both forward and backward looking reference–which connect one part of revelation with another.

Rock of Ages

One such reference is a passage in which Paul shows that he was a biblical theologian and gives us an example of the value and limitations of the TDNT. In 1 Cor. 10:4, Paul mentions the example of disobedience in the wilderness by Israel who "drank from the trailing, spiritual rock; and the rock was Christ." Here the word petra ("rock") is a Christological link back to a key Old Testament episode when Moses struck the rock on which Yahweh stood and life-giving water spilled out (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-13). Other themes intertwine from here: "By his scourging we are healed" (Is. 53:5); Christ is the spiritual rock from whose belly flows the living water, the Spirit (Jn. 7:37-39), but only after the spear thrust of death (Jn. 19:34). Paul's statement, "Christ was the rock" is a pregnant statement showing the organic connection of the revelation of Christ in both Testaments.

Under petra in the TDNT, Cullmann gives a very full article upon the extra-biblical usage of the word ("external lexicography"), including symbolic uses, then treats the New Testament occurrences separately. The lexicographical information is succinct and helpful and his discussion of figures such as Christ as the "stone of stumbling" (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:7-8) and Peter's confession being the foundation stone of the church (Mt. 16:18) are generally very helpful. About 1 Cor. 10:4 he states:

(Paul) is not equating the rock directly with Christ, as though the latter took the form of the rock . . . . Christ is a spiritual (pneumatikos) reality. But He is not a reality of such a kind that one may allegorically abstract Him either from the concrete rock which followed in the past or from the concrete empirical gift of the Lord's Supper in the present. The same Christ, acting in history, stands over both the old covenant and the new in His pre-existence and post-existence (TDNT, Vol. VI, 97).

I doubt if anyone would seriously hold that the rock was a physical Christophany, yet Cullmann suggests a sort of sacramental connection between the wilderness rock and Christ. His statement about Christ's presence in both covenants and especially his spiritual presence in the Old Testament are key truths of value to biblical theology, however what does the "post-existence" of Christ mean? Does Jesus no longer exist except as a mystical symbol of some sort? At best "post-existence" is an unfortunate term for the heavenly life of Jesus Christ after his life "in the flesh." The TDNT will often provide suggestive material for the biblical theologian, yet the theology embodied here is not always fully reliable.

The Glory Tree

One more example will show how Kittel can be used with profit, even in spite of the opinions of the contributors. While investigating the statement in 1 Pet. 2:24 that Christ bore our sins on the "tree" (xulon), we note that the Greek word stauros ("cross") is expected, so we look up xulon in the TDNT. Here Johannes Schneider gives us a full discussion on the extra-biblical meanings of this word: "tree," "wood," "stick," etc., some of which are represented in New Testament usage. Then he discusses the distinctive use of this word for "cross" in several Acts passages which "can be understood only against the background of the LXX," specifically the curse in Dt. 21:22 upon an executed criminal who is hung on a "tree." Then he makes a further point based upon Gal. 3:13 that Christ bore our curse upon the "tree."

Next Schneider turns to our 1 Peter passage:

This is undoubtedly based on Is. 53:4, 12. Predominant here, too, is the idea of substitution. The sins of men are laid on the body of the sinless Christ, who bears them to the cross . . . . It could be that this conception is influenced by the idea of the scapegoat in Lv. 16:21f (cf. also Jn. 1:29) (TDNT, V, 39-40).

In a few short paragraphs, Schneider has introduced us to the various theological meanings symbolized by the "tree" and fulfilled in the cross of Christ. He has given us various Old Testament and New Testament passages to explore as possible biblical-theological links joined together through the word "tree." Thus the TDNT has conveniently brought together the raw material for a biblical-theological treatment of our 1 Peter passage.

One final point in the same TDNT article on xulon concerns the use of this word in Revelation in the "tree of life" which appears in the New Heaven. Schneider himself thinks that this symbol merely goes back to "later Jewish ideas," however he reports on the view of others that the symbol of the "tree of life" in Revelation is nothing less than the cross of Christ. "Early Christian art indicates a close relationship between the tree of life and the cross. The cross of Christ, the wood of suffering and death, is for Christians a tree of life" (TDNT, Vol. V, 40).

Careful exegetical work needs to be done. However it seems to me that the position which Schneider rejects is potentially a rich, biblical vein. This seems to be just the sort of ironic twist suited to the God who makes foolish the wisdom of the wise; the gory tree has become the tree of glory. And if the tree of life in the New Paradise is indeed the cross, what does that say about the tree of life in the original Paradise? Here again, the TDNT has provided suggestive material, even though the contributor of the article does not agree with it. Our use of the TDNT on 1 Pet. 2:24 for this week's sermon has provided material for next week's sermon as well!

Finally, the TDNT is provided with a complete and useful index volume (Vol. X) which indexes English, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic keywords and all Old Testament, Apocrypha and New Testament passages referred to throughout the dictionary. For example, we could expand our research into 1 Pet. 2:24 by seeing what other contributors say about this verse in the New Testament passage index. There we find that 1 Pet. 2:24 is mentioned in passing 20 times and discussed more fully three times–the index distinguishes fuller discussions by putting the reference in bold print. We could also reference the biblical symbol of the "stone" or "rock" by using the English, Greek and Hebrew keyword indexes.

In conclusion, Kittel's Theological Dictionary can be used profitably by a biblical theologian. It often has enough "external lexicography" so that we will not interpret words out of their contexts. We have seen that the Bible often links redemptive themes through the use of key words. The TDNT may point out such links, even when that particular contributor does not agree that the passages or theological ideas are linked. There are some methodological weaknesses in Kittel; however it is still a vast, rich resource for plundering the treasury of Christ.