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"Theos is a Count Noun:"

Is the Word "God" or "a god" in John 1:1c?

A Response to Jehovah's Witness Apologists

Robert Hommel
 
 

The proper translation of John 1:1 has been the center of debate between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians for centuries.  As is well known, the traditional translation of the last clause in John 1:1c is: "And the word was God," which would seem to be a clear declaration of Christ's Deity.  With the publication of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (NWT) in 1950, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS) put its stake in the ground by rendering the last clause of John 1:1 as: "and the Word was a god."  Since then, the WTBTS has officially offered a variety of arguments and scholarly quotations in support of its translation, some of which are summarized and responded to here.

 

The dispute centers on the lack of the definite article (Greek: ho) prior to the word "God" (Greek: theos).  John includes the article prior to "God" in the preceding clause (literally, "and the Word was with the God"), but omits it in the final clause.  The WTBTS sees this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation ("a god").  Trinitarians have responded that the lack of the article does not always make a noun indefinite, but often is used to attribute the nature, character, or qualities of the noun to the subject.  "God," in this view, is a "qualitative noun," attributing the nature, character, or qualities of "God" to the Word.  See here for a more detailed analysis.

 

Recently, some Jehovah's Witness apologists have developed a sophisticated defense of the NWT translation and attack on the traditional rendering on the basis of "God" being a "count noun."  Count nouns, they say, cannot be purely qualitative in meaning, but must always be either definite or indefinite.  The argument is often phrased like this:

 

Theos is a count noun.  Count nouns must be either definite or indefinite.  Since the Logos is said to be "with" the God, He cannot himself be "the God" (definite) and so much be "a god" (indefinite).1

In this article, I will examine this argument in detail, as presented by leading Jehovah's Witness apologists Greg Stafford, Al Kidd, and Rolf Furuli, and will provide reasons why I believe it is not logically or linguistically sound.  I will also offer a brief defense of the purely qualitative semantic force.

 

What is a "qualitative noun?"

The Koine Greek of the New Testament has a definite article ("the") but not an indefinite one.  Thus, a Greek writer could make a noun definite by use of the article, but would omit the article before non-definite nouns.  However, the lack of the article does not necessarily make a noun indefinite - that is placing it in a class or category.  There are cases where a definite noun also lacks the article.  Further, Greek grammarians have long noted that the lack of the article is often used to attribute the qualities, nature, or character of the noun to the subject of the sentence2.  The seminal study on qualitative nouns is Phillip B. Harner's, 1973 JBL article, "Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1."  Harner argues that qualitativeness should be considered a semantic force in its own right, alongside definite and indefinite:

 

This study will suggest that anarthrous predicate nouns preceding the verb may function primarily to express the nature or character of the subject, and this qualitative significance may be more important that the question whether the predicate noun itself should be regarded as definite or indefinite (p. 75).

Harner says that qualitativeness may coexist with either a definite or indefinite semantic force.  Though not explicitly stated, a close reading also indicates that he believed qualitativeness may exist by itself.  When considering Mark 12:35, Harner says, "the predicate noun could be interpreted as defininte, indefinite, or qualitative, depending on the particular meaning or emphasis which we understand the passage to have" (p. 79).

 

When this principle is applied to John 1:1c, Harner offers this as a possible translation that properly conveys John's thought:  "The Word had the same nature as God" (p. 87).3

 

Harner's study has been accepted and expanded upon by a number of Greek scholars, grammarians, and lexicographers.4  While English grammars do not generally classify nouns as "qualitative," and thus English speakers are not used to this term, several languages including Japanese and Coptic have qualitative nouns.  Thus, while there may be some difficulty in expressing the true meaning of a qualitative noun in English without some level of paraphrase, the existence of qualitative nouns in Koine Greek is well established as is their meaning.

 

Jehovah's Witness apologists seek to undermine Harner and other the scholars who agree with him on the basis that theos in John 1:1c is a "count noun."  Count nouns, because they are "countable," cannot be purely qualitative, they say.  Count nouns may "emphasize" qualities in certain contexts, but they retain their "countability," and therefore must still be either definite or indefinite.  

 

What is a "count noun?"

Linguists are fond of classifying parts of speech in various ways.  Nouns, for example, may be classified as abstract or concrete, singular or plural, "mass" or "count."  A typical definition of the latter is:

 

A mass noun denotes something uncountable or abstract, a substance like sugar or iron, or a concept such as integrity or courage; mass nouns usually do not have plurals, and the determiners used with them are typically some and any, never a or an or numbers. A count noun, on the other hand, denotes something countable, such as tree, cat, or ocean. Count nouns do have plurals, and they can have a or an and numbers as determiners. Some nouns can be either mass or count nouns: Grain has become very scarce. Several grains are grown in this region.5

While such a definition is generally helpful in describing what is meant by "mass nouns" and "count nouns," linguists who have written detailed studies on the "mass/count distinction" differ widely on how a given noun can be more formally categorized.  Some, for example, argue that the distinction is between real-world entities - the objects to which the nouns in question actually refer.6  But some argue that the distinction is between the meanings of the nouns themselves, not the objects they name7.  Others suggest that the distinction is grammatical, not semantic8.  Still others argue that nouns themselves cannot be classified as either mass or count, but only noun phrases.9  For those in the "noun phrase" camp, context determines whether a term is mass or count.  Finally, some of the most recent studies suggest that the mass/count distinction is a multi-level phenomenon that cannot easily be explained by any one approach10.  Thus, before Witness apologists make claims regarding the semantics of a "count noun" such as theos in John 1:1c, they must first outline their preferred definition of a "count noun" and defend why this particular view should pertain, in light of the relevant scholarship.  They must then offer arguments demonstrating that, based on this view, theos is indeed a count noun in John 1:1c, as they assert.  In the next section, we will examine whether they have met this burden or not.

 

How Witness Apologists Determine Mass and Count Nouns

Witness apologists who have popularized the "theos is a count noun" argument  prefer a contextual determination of mass/count nouns.  Greg Stafford says: "The context in which the term is used is a proper guide for classifying a term, and that classification can tell us the proper sense" (Stafford, p. 339).  Al Kidd writes:  "In our determining whether a noun has a count sense or a noncount sense, we find that it is often necessary to analyze the context of the noun because there may not be present with the noun any attributive modification for it" (Kidd in Stafford, p. 571 n. 2).  Rolf Furuli, though claiming that theos is a count noun in John 1:1c (and thus "must be either definite or indefinite"), does not offer a specific methodology for determining whether a given noun is mass or count.  However, he does state the general principle: "For the translation of a particular passage the immediate context is the most important factor" (Furuli, p. 218).

 

The above quotations represent virtually all that Witness apologists have offered by way of methodology.  They appear to assume that if they can demonstrate that a noun in a given context is not "countable," it is a mass term, and vice verse.  Al Kidd spends a number of pages examining various nouns in John's Gospel to this end.  For example, he writes: "We may see a count sense for pneuma ("spirit") for certain of its uses, whereas for other uses we have the noncount sense" (Kidd in Stafford, p. 575).  

 

While some linguists agree that contextual factors determine how to categorize a given noun, many would dispute such a claim.  For example, the contextual view does not account for the fact that most nouns favor one category over the other.  "Water," for example, is almost always a mass term; "car" is almost always a count term.  Context is not always determinative.  In the sentence, "Jesus is Lord," it is not clear whether Jesus is "the" Lord (count term, signifying that Jesus is a "Lord" one can count) or Jesus is "Lord" in a qualitative sense (non-count term, in which nature or character of "Lordship" is attributed to Jesus).  Finally, not all nouns can be both count and mass.  A word that we have used several times in this article - "category" - has been suggested by some linguists as a term never occurring in a mass-noun context.  The fact that Al Kidd posits that theos "must always be a count noun" actually argues against the idea that context determines massiveness / amassiveness and presupposes some other methodology.  Yet, Mr. Kidd nowhere identifies this methodology - much less defends it against competing views.

 

Thus, when Witnesses say, "Theos is a count noun," they are assuming a fact not yet in evidence.  On what basis do they make this claim?  If it is context, then what in the context mandates that theos is a count noun with only a definite or indefinite sense?  If it is not context - if theos is always a count noun - then what linguistic model do Witnesses propose that establishes this point?  

 

The mass/count distinction is a complex linguistic puzzle with no consensus view in sight.  Arguments made on the basis of theos being a count noun require far more substantial research and interaction with linguistic scholarship than Witness apologists have yet offered.11

 

More importantly, even if we were to grant the Witness view and agree that context determines whether a noun is mass or count, it is begging the question to argue that "Theos is a count noun and therefore must be either definite or indefinite."  As soon as one defines "count nouns" on the basis of context, the proof that any given noun is a count noun in a certain context must be based on what the noun means in that context.  This is precisely what Kidd does in each of the cases he examines - he argues on the basis of what the noun means in context, then determines if that meaning is "countable."

 

Thus, to prove that theos is a count noun in John 1:1c, Kidd and other Witnesses must establish that theos means either "the God" or "a god" in this verse (that is, that it can be "counted").  But these are the very meanings they claim theos must convey because it is a count noun!  Ultimately, the Witness argument regarding theos as a count noun is circular, proving nothing:

 

Premise 1:  Count nouns are determined by context

Premise 2:  The context of John 1:1c demands that theos is countable (i.e., it means either "the God" or "a god.")

Conclusion:  Theos must mean either "the God" or "a god."

The conclusion is the same as the second premise.  Mr. Kidd and other Witness apologists assume what they seek to prove.  Their argument is thus logically unsound and of no value in determining the meaning of theos in John 1:1c.  

 

"God" is a count noun

Mr. Kidd begins his article by stating this premise:

 

Our position is that it [theos] must always be a count noun, either definite or indefinite, unless it is used metaphorically for the purely qualitative sense afforded either by simile or by a poetic (nonliteral) use of it as a generic appellation (Kidd, in Stafford, p. 569).

He then provides an example of what he sees as a metaphor in which the English "god" is conveys a noncount sense:  "Michael Jordan is a god (among basketball players)."  Mr. Kidd reasons that the speaker of this sentence "probably does not intend that we think of Mr. Jordan as a real god" (Ibid).  I am unaware of any linguist who argues that literalness is a factor in determining whether a noun is mass or count, and Mr. Kidd offers none.  Not even those who use context as a determiner of mass / count terms regard literalness as a factor.  Indeed, they would classify "god" as a count noun in this sentence on the basis of the indefinite article.12  Determining if "god" is literal or figurative is to leave the realm of grammar and lexical semantics and enter that of metaphysics.  We know that Michael Jordan is not literally "a god," because we know who Michael Jordan is.  We know that human beings are not literally "gods."  But these are conclusions drawn outside of grammar.  If we were to interpret the Bible in this fashion, we would be guilty of imposing our theology on the text.  Mr. Kidd has established that "god" in English can convey a "noncount sense" in a given context.  He has established that the meaning of "god" in such a context can be purely qualitative.  It remains his burden to demonstrate from the known principles of lexical semantics why this meaning can only exist in metaphor or simile.

 

Mr. Kidd argues that "God" in English cannot take a "generic referent" as can "Man:"

 

Consider by way of analogy that "Man" takes a generic referent (= all men) in the sentence "The species Homo sapiens is Man."  Therefore the assertion "Jim is Man" cannot be taken literally (Ibid).

Though Mr. Kidd does not draw a conclusion about this statement in terms of John 1:1c, it appears that he is trying to deflect "Jim is Man" as a possible English parallel to "The Word was God."  If so, he has not succeeded.  The fallacy in Mr. Kidd's approach may be illustrated by a simple distinction linguists and philosophers of language draw between senses of the verb "to be." This distinction was popularized by Bertrand Russell (and recognized by many linguists since, notably Gottlieb Frege), who identified four senses of the verb "to be:" auxiliary verb, "is" of existence; "is" of identity; and "is" of predication. The last two are most pertinent in this discussion. The "is" of identity occurs when we identify a subject with a another noun, such as "John is my son." In this example, "John" is equivalent to "my son." When used with an indefinite predicate, the "is" of identity places the subject in a class or category: "the car is a Buick."  The "is" of predication attributes a quality or characteristic to a subject: "the car is red."  With these distinctions in mind, it is clear that the sentence, "Homo Sapiens is Man" can be understood as identification (that is, the species Homo Sapiens is identified with "Man" in the generic sense).  But the sentence, "Jim is Man" is an example of predication.  John is not identified or equated with "Man."  Rather, the qualities, characteristics, and nature of "Man" are predicated to John.  John is fully human.  Thus, when Mr. Kidd states: "When Helen Reddy sang 'I am Woman,' we cannot find that she and Woman are literally identical" (Ibid),  he is correct only if we take "is" in this sentence to be the "is of identification."  If we understand it more naturally as predication, we can take this sentence quite "literally:"  The qualities of "Woman" are fully predicated to Helen Reddy.  The traditional view of theos in John 1:1c is that the qualities of theos are fully predicated to the Logos.

 

Mr. Kidd suggests that, "Jehovah is God" is an example of a "count noun with a qualitative emphasis" (Ibid, n. 1).  Thus, he implies that while "a god" in the Michael Jordan example is a noncount ("purely qualitative") noun, despite the presence of the indefinite article, here we actually have a count noun with a "qualitative emphasis," despite the absence of the article.  Mr. Kidd again disagrees with his own quoted source.13  One wonders on what grammatical basis Mr. Kidd offers "Michael Jordan is (a) god" as an example of a purely qualitative use of "god," while "Jehovah is God" is not.

I would generally agreed with Mr. Kidd that the context of verses that predicate "God" to Jehovah in the OT intend to stress qualities, nature, or character.  I would agree with him that by using a qualitative noun, the author does not mean to convey that Jehovah is "merely another god" (Ibid, emphasis in original).  I do not agree, however, that these examples represent "indefinite uses of the title."  The phrase "Jehovah [the LORD] is God" occurs four times in most English translations (Joshua 22:34; 1 Kings 8:60, 18:21; Psalm 118:27).  In the first three,  elohim/theos is articular (in both Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments) and thus definite.  In Psalm 118:27, the phrase el YHWH (or theos kurios in the LXX) seems also clearly definite, as even the NWT makes clear: "Jehovah is the Divine One" (emphasis added).  The similar phrase "He is God" occurs six times in most English translations (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, 7:9; Joshua 2:11; 1 Kings 18:24, 39).  In the three verses in Deuteronomy and 1 Kings 18:24,  theos without the article is used in the LXX to render the articular elohim in the Hebrew.  It would seem unlikely that the LXX translators intended an indefinite sense, when the original Hebrew was definite.  It is possible they intended a qualitative force, but most probably they knew that their readers would understand theos to be definite in these contexts.   In 1 Kings 18:39, both the Greek and the Hebrew have the definite article before "God."  In Joshua 2:11, both the Hebrew and Greek texts have the word "God" without the article.  However, the context favors "God" being definite or qualitative here as well.  Rahab's entire discourse focuses on her recognition of YHWH as the true God of heaven and earth, not merely "a god" among others.  Not even the NWT renders "God" in this verse as an indefinite noun.  Thus, the evidence does not support Mr. Kidd's assertion that "Jehovah is God" is an example of an "indefinite use of the title."  

Mr. Kidd apparently supports this view with the following:

The Hebrew Scriptures did not use "the (true) God" as the semantic equivalent to the personal name Jehovah when the phrase was combined with adjectival genitives: "I am the God of Bethel" cannot be construed to mean "I am Jehovah of Bethel."  The Hebrew never used expressions such as "my Jehovah," "Jehovah of Bethel," "Jehovah of Abraham," "your Jehovah," or "the living Jehovah" because such expressions imply a plural number of 'Jehovahs' (Ibid).

I confess that I'm not sure exactly what Mr. Kidd means by all this.  I assume that he is suggesting that because he views "God" in such phrases as a count noun it therefore implies a plural number of "gods."  He see this, I suppose, as support for his view that there are many "gods" in the Bible, but only one Jehovah.  One wonders why, then, one of the most common titles of God in the OT is "Jehovah of Hosts?"  By Mr. Kidd's reasoning, doesn't this "imply a plural number of Jehovahs?"  Does this title not convey the same sense as "God of hosts (e.g., Ps 80:7)?  

The Word as God and the Word as Flesh

Many commentators have drawn a parallel between John 1:1 and John 1:14.  They have argued that since both have the same grammatical structure (anarthrous predicate noun preceding the verb), and they occur so closely together, John intends us to take them as parallel in meaning.  In the traditional view, just as Jesus became fully human (John 1:14), He was fully God (John 1:1c).  This is, that both nouns are qualitative - attributing nature or qualities to the Logos.

 

Greg Stafford agrees that John links these two verses, but argues that both nouns actually exhibit an indefinite sense:

 

The Word is the subject and is said to become "flesh."  Will [Trinitarian apologists] hold that sarx in John 1:14 can legitimately be taken to signal flesh and flesh alone, that is, without form or figure?  Is it not entirely reasonable to accept that the semantic signal ("flesh") conveys the idea of becoming "a human?"  Even if we view sarx as signaling "human" (that is, "The Word became human") this would still involve his becoming "a human" (Stafford, p. 343).

Mr. Stafford thus argues that sarx is actually an indefinite noun with a qualitative emphasis,14 which he parallels with theos in John 1:1c.  Mr. Stafford does not tell us what he means by the term "semantic signal."  He apparently has some technical linguistic concept in mind, but I have not read any linguists who use these terms the way Mr. Stafford does.  I take him to be asking what "flesh" means or implies in John 1:14.  His rhetorical question suggests that he does not believe that "flesh" can legitimately be taken to mean "flesh and flesh alone...without form or figure."  It cannot if John is speaking literally.  But to my knowledge, no one in the history of Bible interpretation has suggested that John is speaking literally.  "Flesh" is a metaphor, meaning that the Word became physically human.15  The "signal" that Mr. Stafford deduces - that becoming human involves becoming "a human" - is a metaphysical conclusion drawn from what he knows about the universe.  It is not a meaning contained in the grammar.  John is speaking specifically about what the Word became - His nature or characteristics.  John is not counting "fleshes" and identifying the Word as one of them.  Not even linguists who define count terms on the basis of context would suggest that "flesh" is a count term on the basis of what may be metaphysically inferred about the subject of the sentence, as Mr. Stafford does.  The mass / count distinction would utterly disappear if one judged count terms on that basis, for one could simply take any mass term predicated to a subject and conclude that the subject is an individual example of someone having those qualities, therefore making the mass term "countable."  The issue is not whether the subject of a sentence is countable, but whether the predicate noun is countable.  "Flesh" is not countable.  Even on the basis of a contextual definition of mass / count terms, sarx is a mass term and as such, its qualities and attributes are predicated to the subject when it occurs in an equative phrase.

 

The Case for a Purely Qualitative Noun

The existence of qualitative nouns in Koine Greek has long been noted by Greek grammarians (see note 2, below).  The issue Witness apologists have questioned is whether a noun can be only qualitative, to the exclusion of a definite or indefinite sense.  These apologists have offered no grammarian (Greek or English) who agrees with them; however, a number of grammarians and linguists support the existence of purely qualitative nouns, both in Greek and English.16  Witness apologists have often demanded that Trinitarians provide "a clear example of a Q-only count noun."  I have already demonstrated that the presupposition that theos in John 1:1c is a count noun, based on the Witness's preferred contextual definition of a count noun, cannot be substantiated.  Further, if we accept the contextual definition of a count noun, qualitative theos is not a count noun at all.  A noun signifying qualities or characteristics is not countable in its context.

 

The question, then, is this:  Are there examples of nouns in the NT that exhibit the same qualitative meaning as Trinitarians contend theos does in John 1:1c?  We have already considered sarx in John 1:14.  On a contextual definition of non-count terms, both are non-count nouns.  Both attribute nature or qualities to the subject.

 

John 3:6 provides another example:

 

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Here we have two doubled nouns - "flesh" and "spirit."  In each case, the noun occurs first with the article (Greek: ho).  In the second, the noun lacks the article and occurs before a form of the verb "to be" (Greek: estin).  In this regard, the grammar of this verse parallels John 1:1.  There is no question that the first occurrence of "flesh" and "spirit" are definite:

 

That which is born of the flesh ... that which is born of the Spirit...

It would seem impossible that the second occurrence of each noun is also definite.  Jesus is unlikely to be engaging in tautology:  "That which is born of the Flesh is the Flesh...."  Furthermore, an indefinite semantic force for the second occurrence of "flesh" is also impossible:  "That which is born of the Flesh is a flesh."  As discussed in relation to John 1:14, "flesh" does not become indefinite simply because it is predicated to a subject.  "Flesh" is not countable in this context.  It is thus a non-count term, and as such, its nature or qualities are predicated to the subject of the sentence:  "That which is born of the flesh is (by nature) flesh."  

 

It is barely possible that the second occurrence of "spirit" is indefinite: "That which is born of the Spirit is a spirit," but this is unlikely.  First, Jesus is not speaking about individuals being reborn as literal "spirits," - members of the "spirit" class.  Rather, he is talking about the nature one takes on when one is born of the Spirit.  Second, the parallelism with "flesh" virtually demands that whatever semantic force the second "flesh" has, the second "spirit" must also have.  Thus, "That which is born of the Spirit is (by nature) spirit."

 

A purely qualitative emphasis of "flesh" and "spirit" fits the context of this passage perfectly.  Jesus is responding to Nicodemus' literalness by contrasting the nature one receives by virtue of physical birth against the new, spiritual nature one may obtain through the second birth.17  Both "flesh" and "spirit" exhibit the same purely qualitative meaning as does theos in John 1:1c.18

 

Conclusion

Despite the enthusiasm on the part of some Jehovah's Witness apologists, we have seen that their claim that "theos is a count noun and therefore must be either definite or indefinite" is not based in sound logic or linguistic theory.  They have yet to establish a sound methodology for identifying count nouns in the first place, and their apparent preference for a contextual distinction fails to establish that theos must be either definite or indefinite.  Instead, they must first prove that the context requires theos to be a count noun, before drawing conclusions about what theos can and cannot mean in John 1:1c.

 

On the other hand, there is ample support for the traditional view that theos in this verse is a qualitative noun, signifying that the Logos is God by nature.  

 

 

Notes                                                        

 

1.  A paraphrase of arguments presented by Jehovah's Witnesses on CARM, TheologyWeb, and Evangelicals_and_JWs discussion boards.

2.  E.g., Slaten, (pp. 6-7);  Westcott (p. 3); Dana-Mantey (p. 149); BDF (252); Moulton, (vol. III, p. 184); Porter (p. 105); Robertson (p. 794 [j]); Wallace (p. 244); Young (pp. 68 - 69);  Zerwick, (171, 176)

3.  A more detailed summary of Harner's article may be found here.

4  E.g,, Dan Wallace, Richard Young, Wesley Perschbacher, Rogers & Rogers, Paul Dixon, Don Hartley, and the Louw & Nida lexicon.

5The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Copyright 1993 Columbia University Press.

 

6.  E.g., Quine.,  Word and Object; Ter Meulen, "An Intensional Logic for Mass Terms," Philosophical Studies, 40, 105-125.; Cheng, "Response to Moravcsik" in Hinitikka, ed., Approaches to Natural Languages.

 

7.  E.g., McCawley, "Lexicography and the Count-Mass Distinction," Adverbs, Vowels, and Other Objects of Wonder; Wierzbicka Lexicography and Conceptual Analysis and The Semantics of Grammar.

 

8.  E.g., Bloomfield, Language; Palmer, Grammar.

 

9.  E.g., Pelletier, Mass Terms: Some Philosophical Problems; Bunt, Mass Terms and Model-Theoretic Semantics; Gathercole, "He Has Too Much Hard  Questions: The Acquisition of the Linguistic Mass-Count Distinction in Much and Many," Journal of Child Language, 12, 395-415.

 

10.  E.g., Allan, "Nouns and Countability," Language, 56, 541-567.

 

11.  For an example of such a study from an Evangelical scholar, see Don Hartley's Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass / Count Nouns.  Mr. Hartley proposes a lexical/grammatical distinction between mass and count terms, similar to Bloomfield and Palmer.  In doing so, Mr. Hartley seeks to remove any possible interpretive bias regarding the terms he considers mass versus those he consider count.  By his definition, theos is a count noun because it can be both indefinite and plural, regardless of its context or understood "meaning."  In my view, Hartley's study demonstrates a methodological rigor lacking in the Witness publications thus far.

 

12.  One of Mr. Kidd's own sources for defining mass / count nouns on the basis of context says this:  "Uncountable nouns never take the indefinite article" ("Count and Noncount Nouns," 1988, Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

 

13.  Again, Mr. Kidd's source states:  "A countable noun always takes either the indefinite (a, an) or definite (the) article when it is singular (Ibid).  In view of Mr. Kidd's comments, it is helpful to consider an example offered by Slaten:  "This can never happen while God is God and man is man" (Slaten, p. 5).  Slaten notes that the second 'God' and 'man' are qualitative.  What, specifically, is "countable" in these nouns?  The second man is probably generic (= homo sapiens), but individual members of this genus are not in view ("men"), nor is one exemplary member ("the man").  If the second 'man' is generic, then by means of parallelism, the second 'God' must be, also - contra Kidd.  The meaning seems best brought out by using the gloss 'by nature:' "This can never happen while God is (by nature) God and man is (by nature) man."  

 

14.  Kidd, Stafford, and Furuli all posit that nouns may have a "sense" (definite or indefinite) combined with an emphasis (qualitative):  "Syntax does not establish qualitativeness for a predicate noun, but may establish emphasis for a predicate noun's identity or for its qualitativeness... it is context that may establish whether the predicate is definite or indefinite" (Kidd in Stafford, p. 580).  "I view [the category Q-I] as a noun with an indefinite semantic, having a primarily qualitative emphasis (Stafford, p. 344). "Count nouns denoting persons such as theos and logos, must be either definite or indefinite, and a stress of qualitativeness is an additional characteristic, not an alternative one (Furuli, p. 217; emphasis in original).

 

For Stafford's defense of this view, and my response to it, click here.

 

The idea that a word may contain more than one semantic force (i.e., "meaning") in a given context (unless the author intends ambiguity) seems counter to the way lexical semantics actually works (that is, that we use words to mean only one of their possible denotations in any given context).  Instead, it is an example of what D.A. Carson has called the exegetical fallacy of "unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field" (Fallacies, p. 60-61).  After noting that a word outside of a context actually "does not have a meaning" but rather various potential meanings, Louw says: 

"When used in a context, the situation and the syntactic environment contribute to the choice between the several possibilities of meaning.  The word has a specific meaning in that context" (Louw, Semantics, p. 40).

Cotterell and Turner concur: "The context of the utterance usually singles out (and perhaps modulates) the one sense, which is intended, from amongst the various senses which the word is potentially capable" (Cotterell, p. 175, emphasis in original).  Silva quotes Vendryes: "Among the divers meanings a word possesses, the only one that will emerge into consciousness is the one determined by context (Vendryes, in Silva, p. 139), and says this principle is "one of the few universally accepted hermeneutical guidelines" (Silva, p. 138.).

I wish to stress that I am not dogmatic in classifying nouns as either definite (D), indefinite (I), or qualitative (Q), to the exclusion of "blended" forces (Q-I or Q-D).  Scholars such as Harner, Wallace and Hartley argue for blended forms; Paul Dixon argues for the view I favor.  However, I am not an expert in lexical semantics.  It is possible that nouns exists in a kind of continuum, from I to Q to D and do not inhabit discreet "slots" of meaning.  However, it seems to me that unless there is good reason to conclude otherwise, when we are discussing lexical semantics (the meaning of words), it is best to apply the principle previously stated: Apart from intended double-entendre, the speaker intends to convey one meaning for each noun in a given discourse.  Language is, however, ambiguous.  It is often difficult to determine the precise meaning a speaker intends.  In such cases, the blended forms are helpful - they provide us a couple of "buckets" in which to place nouns  we cannot easily classify as D, I, or Q.  But, they do not reflect the intended meaning of the speaker - only the imprecise reception of that meaning.  Thus, when dealing with a noun such as "prophet" is John 4:19, it seems best to me to argue from the speaker's intended meaning, as best as we can understand it from the context.  If the woman "perceives" qualities or characteristics and predicates those to Jesus, we have a Q noun.

Meaning, of course, ultimately does not reside at the word-level anyway, as James Barr and others have long noted.  We derive meaning from larger chunks of discourse - in the case of John 1:1c, from the immediate context, from the Prologue, from John's Gospel as a whole, from John's other works, from the NT, and from the Bible as a whole in its cultural context.

15.  Al Kidd, in his appendix to Stafford, suggests that "god" can be used in a purely qualitative sense when appearing in a metaphor.  This would seem an implied concession that "flesh" could be a purely qualitative noun, on the same basis.

16.  "Nouns without the article are either (1) Indefinite or (2) Qualitative (adjectival)" (Burton, p. 23).  Other scholars who specifically address the Qualitative-only semantic force include Harner, Dixon, Wallace, and Hartley.  No scholar that I am aware of has argued specifically that qualitativeness cannot exist as a standalone force.  Some Witness apologists, seeking to deny purely qualitative nouns, have argued that count nouns (however they are defined) cannot denote "qualities."  However, to my knowledge, they have offered no linguistic support for this idea.  On the other hand, Muromatsu suggests that "bare" nouns (that is, nouns that do not have the definite or indefinite article) are neither mass nor count, precisely because they denote qualities rather than physical entities (Muromatsu, "The Classifier as a Primative" in Echepare and Miglio, eds., University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 3, p. 145).  Others have questioned whether all bare nouns denote qualities, but nevertheless agree that many do (e.g., Stvan, The Semantics and Pragmatics of Bare Singular Noun Phrases, 1998, PhD dissertation, Northwestern University).  The semantics of bare nouns bears further study in relation to qualtitative nouns.  It has also been asserted that if theos in John 1:1c actually denotes abstract qualities, then the use of the verb "to be" requires the conclusion that the Word is an abstract quality, not a person.  This assertion rests on a superficial understanding of the verb "to be."  See the discussion, above, of Russell's "is of predication," and Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar, p. 130 ("Abstract substantives may be used as descriptive predicates in a way that is peculiar to English; is here seems to approach has in meaning").

17Slaten lists 41 examples of qualitative sarx in the Pauline corpus and 49 examples of qualitative pneuma.  The qualitative aspect of 'flesh' and 'spirit' is typically the focus of commentators on John 3:6:  "Spirit, in the latter part, intends the internal work of grace upon the soul, from whence a man is denominated a spiritual man; and as a child bears the same name with its parent, so this is called by the same, as the author and efficient cause of it: and besides, it is of a spiritual nature itself, and exerts itself in spiritual acts and exercises, and directs to, and engages in spiritual things; and has its seat also in the spirit, or soul of man" (Gill).  The nature of this change, and what that is which is wrought; it is spirit, Joh_3:6. Those that are regenerated are made spiritual, and refined from the dross and dregs of sensuality (Henry, emphasis in original).  "A great universal proposition; 'That which is begotten carries within itself the nature of that which begat it' [OLSHAUSEN]" (JFB).  See also, Ridderbos, p. 128; Carson, p. 196; and Westcott, pp. 50-51.

18.   An example of theos with a purely qualitative semantic force occurs in 2 Macc 7:37 (autos theos estin).  This verse is a good parallel to John 1:1 in my view. It is interesting because the articular use occurs in the same verse "beseeching God" then the anarthrous "confess that he alone is God."