THE GENERIC QUESTION
T. Pierce Brown
A few moments ago I got a letter from a man inTexaswhom I do not know. From the form of the letter I have an idea he sent it to several others. Although I did not deal with the letter in a scholarly or exhaustive way, it might be helpful to read what I told him. One reason is that we need some lessons in how to use Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon and other reference works which some consider authorities. Another is to try to help any who are still interested in respecting Him who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).
His letter says, “According to Goebel Music’s tract `MUSIC – Instrument or Vocal’ (p. 12 & 16):`The term generic means that the word is universal, general and that we have liberty…Had God just commanded `music’ then we could sing, play, or do both. `Music’ is generic in nature…” I think that Goebel is right, and does not need me to come to his defense.
However the one who wrote me the letter continues with these words: “According to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the N.T. (under the definition of humnos on page 637): `…ode is the generic term…ode is the general word for a song, whether accompanied or unaccompanied…Thus it was quite possible for the same song to be once psalmos, humnos and ode (Bp. Lghtft on Col. 3:16). The words occur together in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19.’ Clearly, God DID just command music in the word ode in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, authorizing us to sing, play, or do both.”
I have neither time nor space in this article to deal properly with the subject of instrumental music in worship. I will simply include my letter of reply to him and give a few additional comments about some principles involved.
Dear Mr. A——-,
I just received your letter concerning “ode” and your comment, “Clearly, God DID just command music in the word “ode” in Col. 3:16 and Eph.5:19, authorizing us to “sing, play, or do both.” Recognizing that to be your conclusion, I doubt that anything I say would be of any value to you, but will make at least one comment.
When Thayer says, “`ode’ is a general word for a song, whether accompanied or unaccompanied” he is almost correct, but I am convinced that you misapply that information. Let me illustrate. I could just as properly say that “`chalab’, translated `milk’ in Judges4:19or Judges5:25) means `milk, with or without corn bread’.” That is almost correct. That is, it is correct if I mean by it that Jael may have given Sisera milk, with or without corn bread. But the meaning of the term “milk” is NOT “a white or yellowish fluid secreted in the mammary glands of female mammals, with or without corn bread.” “Milk” is simply “milk.” One may serve it with corn bread, turnip greens or beans, but that is no part of the definition.
So, “ode” is a general word for song. That is true whether accompanied or unaccompanied, as Thayer says. When God commanded us to “admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (odais), singing (adontes)” (Colossians3:16), the words have to do with singing. It would be interesting for someone to try to explain how we could admonish one another by playing the notes of a song. It is true that a song may be accompanied or unaccompanied by instrumental music. It can also be accompanied by the blowing of a train whistle, ringing a cowbell, or beating on a bongo drum. But that is not a part of its definition. “Ode” is a generic term–that is, the general word for a song. When a person has sung a song, he has done the general thing God commanded. When he has admonished another in those psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, he has done the specific thing God commanded. When he accompanies it with something he designs, assumes and adds, he does something God did not command. It is not a generic term for “play” or something else.
“Liquid” is a generic term for fluid. It may include milk, water, orange juice, or shaving lotion. If God says, “Put liquid in your mouth,” two things are true. First, it is true that I have the right to conclude that liquid is generic, and I can put milk, water, or any other liquid in my mouth by the authority of God. It is also true that I can accompany that with anything I want, but I have no right to say that the accompaniment is by the authority of God. It is incorrect to say, “liquid means a fluid, accompanied or unaccompanied by pumpkin pie.”
Liquid means a fluid. It may be accompanied or unaccompanied by anything, but that is neither a part of the definition, nor authorized by one who says, “Drink liquid.”
The two things I want to emphasize for those who may not be aware of it are these: First, when one goes to an “authority” for the meaning of a word, he needs to know the difference between what that “authority” says as a result of his search into God’s word and the opinions he may express as a result of his theological bias. For example in Young’s Analytical Concordance, page 70, he says under “Baptism,” “To consecrate (by pouring out on or putting into).” It matters not how smart Young was, or how much one may respect him as an “authority,” the truth should be evident that “baptism” does not mean that in the Bible. If anyone who has read thus far needs more argument on that point, additional reading of this article will be of no value to you. One simply needs to know how to use a Concordance and Lexicon properly. Pope’s advice is still good. “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”
The second thing I want to emphasize is that when Thayer says, “ode is the generic term” he says it “is the general word for a song.” He did not say, “it is the general word for music.” That is, it may be a song or praise, a song of thanksgiving, or a song of some other kind, therefore a general word for song. If he had said it is a general word for music, that would have meant that the word “ode” may mean playing a Jew’s harp, a banjo, a bongo drum, a brass band, or any other kind of music. If he had said that, he would be wrong, for it is not so.
My correspondent who wrote the letter of inquiry thinks that Thayer proves that “God did just command music in the word ode” because “music” is generic and “ode” is generic. “Ode” is generic, but it is a generic word for “song” and not a generic word for “music.” To show more clearly the fallacy of my correspondent, let us examine two other words.
The word “milk” is generic, in the sense that it may be from a cow, goat, or any other mammal. It is specific in the sense that it is a specific kind of liquid. It is not wine or watermelon juice. The word “wine” is generic in the sense that it may mean “that which is derived from the grape vine” including the juice still in the cluster on up (or down) to the stuff that “biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder” (Proverbs 23:32). The word “liquid” is generic, in that it includes both milk and wine.
The fact that they are all generic in some areas in no way suggests, and therefore could not possibly prove, that if God commanded, “Take a spoonful of milk” one is authorized to take a spoonful of wine. Also, since milk is a general word for “the fluid from the mammary glands of female mammals” whether offered voluntarily or squeezed out by hand or machine, it proves nothing about substituting another kind of liquid that is also generic in its field.
Of course a person who depends on his own suppositions and human reasoning, disregarding the authority of Christ, will not be helped by the above information. It seems probable that one who has arrived at the conclusion that we do not need authority for what we do will be impervious to any argument from the Bible anyway. It is our hope that others who have not gone that far into apostasy may be able to see more clearly some important principles that relate to understanding and doing God’s will.