Sound and fury redux: mataiologia vs. kenophonia

Posted: 25th June 2009 by ElShaddai Edwards in Faith & Theology

In a post from about a year ago, I considered various translations of 1 Timothy 1:6, which in the REB reads as such:

Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words.

The key phrase “a wilderness of words” is a translation of the Greek mataiologia, which is literally translated as “empty talk” (cf. “fruitless discussion” in the NASB and “vain jangling” in the KJV). The essence is that words or discussion are void of meaning. In the original post, I limited my consideration to this verse, with a nod to the only other appearance of this unique Greek word in Titus 1:10 (“empty talker”).

At this time, I want to skip forward to the very end of Paul’s letter, where he concludes with some final exhortations to Timothy. Again, from the REB, 1 Timothy 6.20-21:

Timothy, keep safe what has been entrusted to you. Turn a deaf ear to empty and irreligious chatter, and the contradictions of ‘knowledge’ so-called, for by laying claim to it some have strayed far from the faith. Grace be with you all!

Note the recurrence of “stray” (Gk. astocheo) in conjunction with getting off-track in faith. However, I’m most interested in the phrase translated “empty and irreligious chatter”. The Greek is bebēlos kenophōnia — translated in the KJV as “profane and vain babblings”.

The latter Greek word, kenophōnia, is derived from kenos (“empty, vain, devoid of truth”) and phone (“a sound, a voice, speech”) and has a general meaning of “empty discussion, discussion of vain and useless matters”, which seems very similar to the definition of mataiologia outlined above.

Breaking down mataiologia again: the root adjective mataios means “devoid of force, truth, success, result” and “useless, of no purpose”, while legos means “to say, to speak”, especially in a teaching or instructional manner with the meaning of what is being spoken emphasized.

Note that both mataios and kenos carry a meaning of “devoid of force/truth”. In a general sense, the meaning of these two words, mataiologia and kenophōnia, seem close enough that it makes you wonder why Paul used different words. However, in considering legos and phone, perhaps we see that we’re viewing two sides of the same coin. The former refers to the meaning of what is being spoken, the latter to the sound of what is being spoken.

If so, Paul seems to be saying that not only have some people lost the meaning of the Law (cf. 1 Timothy 1:7), but that even the words they then use in ignorance lack effect or resonance and should be avoided at all cost.

  1. Iris says:

    Could it also have to do with the sense that these “empty words” in 1 Tim. 1:6 relate to discussions between people in a small group setting, and the reference in 6:20-21 have reference to a proclamation (or preaching)? If that should be the case, then the latter reference would carry your idea easily. Among us Charismatics, we speak of an “anointing” that designates the fact that not only do the ideas and words hold truth, the sound of the words used also carries weight in the heart. It is very possible to speak truth, yet not have the authority and “anointing” of the Holy Spirit within the words, and no change be possible, even the words were true.

    There is an essence of Spirit required for change in the heart to occur. I realize this is a difficult concept to accept because of linear thought patterns. But by way of example, John Piper has both truth and the power in the sound of the words (anointing) for change to occur as one listens. Although I do not always agree with him theologically, none can fault the power in His words. This is good and right for proclaimers of Good News.

    The danger comes when one speaks un-truths with that same anointing. That is also everywhere.

    I find it interesting that the Holy Spirit reserves for Himself the ability in the life of one who proclaims to either give such a “power in words,” or not. That is His walk with the individual. There are many pastor and teacher “wanna-bee’s” and the sound of their words are empty — even though their scholarship may be excellent. That is interesting to me.

    Thank you for this post. I have learned. I pray my sharing may help also. If not, just know I am reading and enjoying.

  2. Iris, thank you for the response and insight! I’m not convinced about a small group discussion vs. preaching split – I think that given the broader context of 1 Timothy, especially chapter 6, that Paul is referring to people who were/are attempting to use religion and/or faith as a means of building their own reward. The “wanna-bee” teachers who used religious sounding words, but didn’t know what they were teaching. Paul calls such a person “a pompous ignoramus […] whose minds are corrupted and who have lost their grip of the truth” in 1 Timothy 6:4-5 (REB).

    I think that Paul argues that as long as you keep yourself focused on “a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith” (1:5), then that is all the annointing needed to make sure that words bear fruit. Though I certainly agree with you that it is possible to use Biblical words without the Spirit bearing witness. On the other hand, the Bible clearly says that no one can confess Jesus as Lord without the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).

  3. Iris says:

    Your words are generally true — but there is more. I have heard many, many preachers in my life and a good number of them had small churches where the people never grew spiritually nor numerically. Yet the preacher/pastor was teaching the Word and loving his people, always wondering why it was not working.

    Hence the very fertile ground in the church today for “programs” that will work. I am not against “programs” especially when they will do what the Spirit is telling the leadership to do. However, the church in general has leaned way too far into them to accomplish what only anointing through the Word can do. I know I am writing about something most in the evangelical world know nothing of, but there is always more of the Spirit to have — more gifted-ness, more ability to “behold” in Spirit, more to understand and more to expect.

    So even though, every born-again pastor has the Spirit, not all are gifted in Word and in the ability to move in that Word where even the sound of their words is empowering obedience in the hearers. When this does occur, wonderful things explode in their lives.