Monday, November 25, 2013

The Use of the Singular in the Bible, and the Church

Bruce Waltke in his Biblical Hebrew Syntax writes (p. 113):

Hebrew uses the grammatical singular for countables, for collectives, and for class nouns. . . . With countables the singular serves to enumerate one object.

"The earth" in Genesis 1:2 is an early example.  He continues (pp. 113-114):

With collectives the singular designates a group.  Some words in Hebrew, like 'fish,' 'sheep,' and 'fruit' in English, are treated as collectives and represented by the singular. . . . Like English, Hebrew may use the article with a singular noun to indicate a particular class or group; cf. 'The lion is king of the beasts.'. . . Hebrew may use the singular with this meaning even without the article, especially in poetry.

"The ungodly" in Psalm 1:1 is an example of a "class noun."  It is not referring to any one, particular person, but a class of individuals.  As in the use of "the lion," there must be an actual, real lion for there to be the class of such.  "The ungodly" means there are many, separate ungodly individuals.

Herbert Weir Smyth in his Greek Grammar for Colleges writes:

The article . . . marks objects as definite and known, whether individuals (the particular article) or classes (the generic article).

The singular noun with "the" is either particular or generic as two general categories.  Using Waltke's vocabulary, we have "countable" nouns in the singular and "class" nouns in the singular, unless it is a collective, at which times it can be plural.  "The fish" might be more than one, but only in the instance of a collective.  Otherwise, the singular is either a countable or a class, a particular or a generic.

Everything that I've written about above is actually well-known and not complicated.

"Generic" should not be confused with a usage that is a type of particular, namely, "anaphoric," in which a singular noun looks back in a sentence (ana = up) for a referent, example:  "Susan broke the plate."  Sometimes, instead of anaphoric, it is cataphoric, where we look forward in the text to understand to what that singular noun refers specifically (cata = down).  Anaphoric and cataphoric are still particular usages, because they mark a particular with the context, either backward or forward, up or down.

Now let's consider it as it applies to the singular "church," when not referring to a particular church. Whether the singular noun is generic is determined by the context.  There are 71 usages of "the church" in the New Testament.  Between Matthew and the end of Acts, there are no generic usages of "the church" -- that's 17.  There are none in Romans, and then after five particular usages in 1 Corinthians, we read one supposed or apparent generic in 1 Corinthians 12:28.

And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

The next 10 usages in 1 Corinthians and Galatians are all particular.  Then we get to Ephesians, which contains quite a few of the supposed or generic usage(s).  Bear in mind, that it's possible to interpret any usage of "the church" in these epistles as either anaphoric or cataphoric, since the church members would be thinking of their own church in the context.   I believe those would be typical anaphoric or cataphoric usages.  Christ is the Head of the church -- "sure, our church; Christ is the Head of it."   However being as generous as possible, the following could be generic usages:

Ephesians 1:22 -- And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,
Ephesians 3:10 -- To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
Ephesians 3:21 -- Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
Ephesians 5:23, 24, 25, 29, 32 -- 23  For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.  24  Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.  25  Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;  29  For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:  32  This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
Colossians 1:18, 24 -- 18  And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.  24  Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church:

Besides one usage in Philippians, which is particular, all the usages after Colossians 1:18, 24 are surely particular, 23 uses.

The reason, I think it is safe to say that they are still particular in an "anaphoric" or "cataphoric" sense is that Paul was writing to "the church at Corinth," "the church at Ephesus," and "the church at Colossae."  Corinth had there all the offices mentioned in 1 Coirnthians 12:28 at one time or another.  When Paul wrote that Jesus was "the head of the church," the church members would think of their own church.  If I was talking to my own church, and said "Jesus is the Head of the church," they would be thinking of themselves.  That is an actual anaphoric usage.  Sure, as we all read it now, we think that "the church" is our own church.  That's why I'm saying that I'm being generous, I believe, to designate these as "generic" uses of the singular.

Alright.  With all of the above being said, in the Hebrew and Greek, there are abstract nouns that are used in the singular, like knowledge, truth, charity, faith, hope, and joy.  "Church" is not an abstract noun.  It is concrete.  As I also mentioned above, there are collective nouns, used like the singular, such as fish and sheep.  "Fish" is the same form for the singular or the plural.  "Church" is not one of those.  It is not a collective noun.  The plural of "church" is "churches."  This should be a huge cue to those who say it is a collective, which I have actually read in several places.  It would seem that only the gullible would go for that, in light of all the uses of "churches" in the New Testament.

There is no category of spiritual or metaphorical noun.  Nouns can be used as a metaphor.  For instance, I could say, "Today is a prison and I am the inmate."  "The inmate" is used as a metaphor, but it is still a concrete noun.  It isn't abstract or a collective.  In this case it is used as a particular, because the inmate is a particular person.  "Church" is not used as a metaphor in the Bible.  "Door" is.  "Bread" is.  "Church" isn't.  There is no metaphorical or spiritual or platonic usage of "church" in the Bible.  It is either a generic or a particular.  If it is a generic, it is still a church as church is used all its other times.

Recently, I heard someone say something I had never heard or read before.  If it is new in your reading -- you had never heard it or read it before and couldn't find it in any writing -- it's probably being made up.  What I heard was that there are two meanings of "church," like there are two meanings of other words, like "justify" or "for."  How do you know there are different meanings to words?  Those are words where it is plain that there is more than one meaning.  Most Greek prepositions have multiple meanings, that we can discern by how they are used.  "Justify" has nuances of difference in meaning, but "justify" still works in both contexts.  Abraham was justified by works -- before men -- not before God.  His works declared him righteous to men.  You get this kind of nuance of difference in words, but they don't change drastically from their root meanings.

"Church" (ekklesia) means "assembly" and what else?  It would be very, very strange for a word that means "assembly" to also mean "not assembly," something contradictory to its root meaning.  My default position would be not believing such a dual meaning.  I would start with rejection and then wait for very incredible, plain, clear proof.  I would expect both countable and class, particular and generic, singulars, but they wouldn't change the  meaning.

"The church" is a singular noun with a definite article, so it can be a particular or a generic.  It still means "assembly."  It can't be universal, because assemblies aren't universal.  Assemblies aren't catholic.  Assemblies are local only.  The church is local only.


d4v34x said...

Plural and collective are not the same thing. Fish is the plural of fish and not a collective.

We caught many fish. (plural)

We made a good catch of fish. (catch is collective here fish is just plural)

Fish is a good source of protien. (might be class but definitely not collective).

Ken Lengel said...


Thank you for your post.

It is amazing how powerful is the revealing of God's Word when men truly apply a consistent, normal, grammatical-historical exegesis of God's Word. When we put our presuppositions and pride aside and truly take the time to study these things, clarity is the result.

As a person who grew up outside Christianity in my early years, I never could understand why anyone accepted a belief in a universal church. I never could see it in the Scriptures alone and every explanation I have ever heard seemed "forced" or "contrived". I say that not to be dismissive, but with all honesty, concerned over the impacts or as we previously discussed the "danagers" of believing incorrectly in a universal church. The more I study God's Word, the more I see the unity of it, and the more it makes me want to make sure I get the particulars right, because errors will only lead to others.


Kent Brandenburg said...


It's why I quoted Bruce Waltke, the foremost Hebrew scholar. You can argue with me, but you're arguing with him. I'm using his terminology. :-D

d4v34x said...

Doesn't matter who said it first, fish and sheep are not collective nouns. If he means collective as in the sense of representing their entire class, he is correct that this happens, but that is not the definition of a collective noun. As some quick googling will demonstrate.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm in between classes here, as I was when I published everyone's comments and wrote mine, so I'll be short. So you're saying that collective and class are the same?

My problem with your critique, really, is that you say nothing about what I wrote, as it applies to everything, but you cherry-pick one point, which comes across like you're attempting to discredit the whole article by smearing it with one criticism. It's a very common and unjust type of criticism, and usually used by people that can't actually answer the post itself. It's a drive-by, I believe, in modern internet lingo.

However, you've got to think more deeply than criticizing definitions. Only certain singular nouns are "collective" and notice that their plural and their singular are the same, so when they are used in the singular, they could be referring to a plural. "Fish" can be referring to plural fish. Even if it is a collective "fish," as your example, "a batch of fish" or "a package of fish," it is still representing plural fish. That shouldn't be lost and it's the point. When you use "church," it is is not a collective. That's the point. When you say "church," you aren't referring to plural "churches," like "fish" is used. That's the point, which you didn't deal with in your cherry picking. I'd be glad to find any meaning in your point other than nit-picking on something that might not be wrong, because I've got to go back and look at all my sentences to see if anything I said was in fact wrong.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Sorry that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, or something like that, but I agree with your comment. Thanks. That's how it seems to me, and regarding your comment on pt. 3 of Ekklesia, I agree that Augustine invented the invisible church in reaction to criticism of the Donatists on the impurity of the RCC and due to his neo-platonism. Nice quote, from a Reformed guy (not a "landmarker"). Thanks.

Kent Brandenburg said...

And by the way, I'm not here to correct Waltke, but to use the language that he has recorded. If you look at English grammars, Hebrew grammars, and Greek grammars, they will use different language to indicate certain points. There isn't technically an object of the preposition in the Greek, for instance, as there is in the English. So I don't know that it isn't called a "collective," depending on the language. Whatever, he chooses to call it, it still stands that fish, which reads singular, is not singular, but plural at times, as a "collective" or whatever you want to call it.

I just reread the post and I don't see a problem with what I wrote, since I was relying on the designations of Waltke in the Hebrew. I would be glad to critique him if I didn't know that there are different designations given, depending upon the grammar, depending on what the language is. And I was making the argument on the Hebrew and Greek, not the English, even though I think people "get it." They get the designations, even if it might miss what English grammars call it. In the Greek, by the way, an infinitive can have a subject. There are lots of examples of this in other languages that differ in their designations from the English. Maybe there's an example out there saying Waltke is wrong.

Kent Brandenburg said...

But again, it comes across as a red herring. Understanding the language I'm using, "the church" is not a collective.

d4v34x said...

Only certain singular nouns are "collective" and notice that their plural and their singular are the same, so when they are used in the singular, they could be referring to a plural.

This is what I'm getting at. It simply isn't correct. Group is a good example. In "a group of scientists", group is collective. Yet the plural of group is groups. In my example of catch of fish above it is catch, that is collective, not fish. Catch is made plural by adding "es" as in catches. "Over the last few weeks we've made several nice catches of bluegill."

The fish and sheep thing is a mistake no matter who tries to use it to prove . . . whatever they're trying to prove.

So when you argue that church cannot be collective because it has a plural in churches, it doesn't hold.

No red herring intended.

Kent Brandenburg said...


You need to get off "catch" and get on "fish." Waltke is calling "fish" a collective. You say he's using the wrong term, but how do you know that. I said that the Greek preposition doesn't have an object. When it is translated, it has one. Whatever you want to call them, irregular plurals, irregular number, Waltke is calling them collectives, and "church" is not one of them. This is the red herring. Waltke isn't proving anything. He's just saying there are three types of singulars in the Hebrew: countable, collective, and class. I'm just repeating what I wrote. Is "fish" plural? Is "church" plural? If "fish" is singular, what is the plural of "fish"? The only reason I brought in "collective" is so as to be transparent about the Hebrew usage: there is more than two. Later I said "church" isn't used that way, like that usage, Waltke calls "collective" in which you say Waltke and [here, here, here, here, and here, etc. ] are wrong. Have you taken Hebrew?

I'm not talking about "batch," which might be a collective in an English grammar. That's the red herring. "Church" is not used like "fish."

d4v34x said...

Haven't taken Hebrew. When Waltke said fish and sheep, I assumed he was attempting to give English examples of a collective rather than note "collectives" in Hebrew (is that what he's doing?).

If so it threw me because that's not what you call that idiosyncrasy in English grammar.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Collectives can be singular or plural, and Waltke in my quote is referring only to the singular, as was I. "The church" is singular and it is not a collective in the singular. Only certain words are used as collectives only in the singular, fish being one of them. I understand that fish is plural too, but church is only singular. That's my only point there, and it is one of very many and not a major point, if you read the flow of the article. I deal with it, because I have read men call "the church" a collective usage. I have read it very rarely, but that word gets used.

Joe Cassada said...

Kent, I've been following your posts on the local-only church issue. Let me see if I follow your line of thinking:

1. The word "church" can only ever refer to an assembly.
2. Therefore, the word church is used incorrectly when referring to all Christians everywhere.
3. When referring to all Christians everywhere, words/phrases like "kingdom of God," "family in heaven and earth," etc. are used.

My question then is, while you reject the wording "universal church" do you also reject the concept of a spiritual bond/relationship between all Christians everywhere?

Here's what I'm trying to say: I get how the universal church, according to your argumentation, would be an incorrect usage of the word church, but I see a bonding between all churches represented in passages like Revelation 1-2 where John describes seven golden candlesticks. My understanding is that John sees a menorah, and the individual lamps (candlesticks) represent local churches, but the menorah as a whole represents the bond or unity that local churches share in Christ. So, candlesticks=local church, but menorah = universal/spiritual relationship between Christians.

So, again, the wording "universal church" is rejected, but is the concept also rejected? By concept I mean that spiritual relationship that exists between all Christians everywhere. I think that is essentially what the universal church is.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I don't know how far you want to take the menorah. I would take it as far as the passage teaches, that is, Jesus walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. What brings every true church together is that Jesus walks in the midst of all of them, because He is omnipresent. He can be in the midst of every church through His Divine Spirit.

There is unity in the family, the kingdom, but functionally those don't operate. The church does, which operates only as an assembly. It is important we get this right. We've seen what getting it wrong will do. We get most Christians free roaming without authority.

Kent Brandenburg said...

I want everyone to know that "fish" is used as a plural or singular in the modern English. It wasn't in KJV days. Waltke uses "fish" merely as an illustration of what he calls a collective use of the singular noun in the Hebrew OT. Thanks!

d4v34x said...

Sorry to be the dullard here, but is Waltke using it as an example from modern English or from Hebrew?

d4v34x said...

Ah, going back I see it is the English to which he refers. Quite poorly put and, I might add, confusing.

Bill Hardecker said...

In school I was taught that words like fish & deer are irregular nouns (meaning the word doesn't change form for either plural or singular). But when I read the Bible (KJV) it says "fishes." So that makes sense.

d4v34x said...

Bill, my preferred term is "defective nouns". Really lays the blame where it belongs. :)

Kent Brandenburg said...

I really did consider when I wrote this post leaving out Waltke's "fish" illustration. All he's saying is that the Hebrew does the same thing, and he calls it a collective. I don't think we should allow the terminology to confuse us and deal with the point. "Collective" doesn't bother me as a term, as long as he defines what he's talking about and he suitably does. The Hebrew is different than the English, because you would have a definite singular form and a definite plural form, and certain words are used as a singular that are collective, according to his illustration. The singular in the Bible is used as countable, collective, or class. Countable (particular) and class (generic) are the only two usages of "church" because it isn't a collective in the sense that Waltke is defining collective. I recognize church is a NT term, but I'm speaking about the whole Bible in this article.

Is the article correct though, if you can dismiss the collective aspect of it?

Anonymous said...

I've been following the universal/local church discussions with interest, and found that Joe Cassada makes a valid point: Do we reject the concept of the universal church, or just the wording?

My belief has been that the church is the body of believers. The local church is an assembly of believers in one place that functions in that one area. But I see the universal church (or whatever one might want to call it) as the gathering of believers in Heaven, where we will all be assembled before the Throne.

I am a member of my local church, even when I am just walking to it. In the same way, I am a member of the universal church, walking the journey here on earth. When I arrive at my local church, I am no more nor no less a member of it than I was while walking. When I arrive to that "sweet by and by", I am no less nor more a member of that assembled body than I am during my Christian journey here on earth.

I doubt that I'll change your mind, but just wanted to contribute my 2c worth! Thanks!