Re: Rom 12:3 -- FRONEIN and hUPERFRONEIN

From: James H. Vellenga (
Date: Fri Sep 26 1997 - 15:04:21 EDT

> From Wed Sep 24 20:39:41 1997
> Date: Wed, 24 Sep 1997 19:38:09 -0500
> At 8:44 AM -0500 9/24/97, James H. Vellenga wrote:
> >On August 5, in response to a hasty conclusion on my part as to the
> >meaning of FRONEW, Carl Conrad wrote:
> >>
> >> I'm afraid I'd have to dissent from this. FRONEW is a verb of long and
> >> venerable history in Greek, even if one want to argue that much of that
> >> history is irrelevant to NT usage. In the archaic era and in tragedy it
> >> tends to mean "to exercise moral wisdom"--in which case it is synonymous
> >> with SWFRONEIN, "to be of sound mind." FRONEIN is what, according to
> >> Aeschylus in the Agamemnon, Zeus leads humanity toward through suffering.
> >> In Aristotle, FRONHSIS is the word for moral virtue as an exercise of
> >> intelligence in the consistent choice of the mean between excess and
> >> deficiency. In the NT FRONEW more or less consistently means "to think" in
> >> the sense of "focus one's thinking." <snip>.
> >
> ><snip>.
> >
> >My questions have to do with its usage (and that of hUPERFRONEW) in Rom.
> >12.3. BAGD (my wife got me one for my birthday this month) divides the
> >basic meanings of FRONEW into three parts. The second basic meaning --
> >"set one's mind on, be intent on" -- corresponds to the idea of
> >"focusing on." BAGD relegates Rom 12.3 to the first basic meaning of
> >"think, for or hold an opinion, judge" -- as in
> >
> > not to keep thinking of yourselves more highly than you ought to
> > think, but to keep thinking with sound thinking.
> >
> >But it seems to me that, since Rom 12 -- at least vv. 1-8 -- have to
> >do with presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice and exercising
> >CARISMATA (gifts, charters), one might easily read the FRONEINs above
> >as having the second basic meaning of "to focus on," as in
> Jim, I think you're right about this: And I would agree with you that it is
> that SECOND basic meaning that we should see in play in Rom 12:3. I also
> think your "focus on" works well, although it seems to me to be a
> peculiarly American English colloquialism (meaning I wonder how clear it is
> to someone from the UK or New Zealand or Australia--and I suppose we have
> some list people in those areas who will tell us just how clear it is to
> them). If you're thinking in terms of translation into a different
> vernacular, you might have trouble finding an equivalent of "focus on" in
> our usage.

Yes, it would be pleasing to get some feedback from our other
countries. I have also looked at "to concentrate on" as another
way of saying much the same thing.

> > not to keep high-focusing beyond what you have to keep focusing
> > on, but to keep focusing on keeping a clear focus
> >
> >That is, in Rom 12.3, Paul would be urging us to focus in our personal
> >responsibilities without getting distracted by the responsibilities of
> >others.
> I think the sense is right in the above version, but it does seem a bit
> strained in order to retain FIGURA ETYMOLOGICA with the FRON- words. Dare I
> say that I had some difficulty in keeping the whole thing in "focus"
> because of the distracting focality? It sounds so slangy-American--to me at
> least. If you could make the beat come out right, you might set it to
> music. ;-)

I agree. I was attempting to be hyperliteral so as to retain
the repetitiveness of the root FRONEIN.

> >So Question 1 is
> >
> >1) Is this alternative interpretation of Rom 12.3 possible, reasonable,
> >and/or even likely? What other factors influence the choice?
> Except, I think for the "high-focusing." Anticipating your next paragraph,
> I really think the sense of hUPERFRONEIN in 12:3 is, to use some more
> American colloquialisms, "to go overboard," or "to go off the deep end," or
> maybe "to overshoot the mark."
> How about: " . . . not to overshoot the mark of what you should focus on
> but rather to focus on holding a clear focus"?
> >My other question has to do with hUPERFRONEIN. It occurs (I think) only
> >once in the NT. The traditional interpretation treats the prefix hUPER-
> >as denoting high or lofty. But in many words the prefix seems to be
> >like "over-" in the sense of excessive. So question 2 is
> >
> >2) Could hUPERFRONEIN mean "overly focused" (that is, "too intense")
> >rather than "loftily focused" (that is, "ambitious")? Why or why not?
> I think the notion of excess is very definitely expressed by the prefix
> hUPER- in hUPERFRONEIN. I'm thinking of an Aeschylean passage describing
> the trajectory of Zeus's thunderbolt of justice aimed at Troy so carefully
> that it neither fell short of the mark nor went "beyond the stars"
> (something like hUPER TOUS ASTERAS). More pertinent perhaps to our context
> (and I don't have the tools with me to check on the appearance of
> hUPERFRONEIN in texts of roughly the time of Paul), would be Aristotle's
> use of hUPERBALLEIN and hUPERBOLH as an ethical term to express excessive
> behavior, behavior that misses the "golden mean" between too little and too
> much. I'm not saying by any means that Paul had that usage in mind, but
> Aristotelian ethics had a powerful impact still in late antiquity, and
> there might just be some indirect influence of the way hUPER- works in
> hUPERBOLH (which of course becomes the English word "hyperbole" for
> rhetorical exaggeration.
> But to "focus" more sharply on 12:3, my sense of MH hUPERFRONEIN PAR' hO
> DEI FRONEIN in the context of the several verses that follow is more
> simply, "don't hold too high an opinion (of yourself)"--the context seems
> to underscore, does it not, the need to see one's own role in the whole
> community of believers as a role having its own place in a total
> organism--or to shift into Paul's not uncommon athletic metaphor -- but to
> shift it into American football -- one ought to be a team player, and not
> be so "hyped up" that one imagines he's on the field only for himself.
> Does that seem to fit in the context?
> Carl W. Conrad

Yes, I can see that as fitting in the context. I actually saw
several nuances as possible:

   1) Don't become morbidly intense (our pastor's phrase from a
      prayer last Sunday) -- i.e., don't get wrapped up so much
      in your own thing that you can't stop to smell the roses
      and appreciate what others are doing. Or in terms of "focus",
      "don't focus too exclusively."

   2) Don't hog the attention for your own ministry. For example,
      someone concerned with a singles ministry could be loud and
      demanding because too much attention is going to families.
      In other words, "don't focus too demandingly."

   3) Don't wish you could do a "higher" ministry than your own.
      My experience is that, particularly in smaller churches,
      many people often envy the status
      of elders or other leaders. In other words, "don't focus
      beyond your station," "don't be overly ambitious."

It seems that all three of these seem to fit with your penultimate
paragraph ("But to 'focus' more sharply ...."). All three have
to do with having too high an opinion of oneself. So I think your
sense relative to the context is absolutely correct. But I would
still like to characterize the nuance of hUPERFRONEIN more
precisely if I could -- does the hUPER- here indicate "excessively"
as in 1) and 2) above, or "superiorly" as in 3)? Is there any
way of deciding?

Your earlier paragraph noting that hUPERFRONEIN may well mean
to "go overboard" seems to fit better with 1) and 2).

Jim Vellenga

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