Literature: Language

The Importance of Context: Grammar, Syntax, and Discourse

In unit 3 of Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, we discuss three vital aspects of language: grammar, syntax, and discourse. Grammar refers to certain features of the way words work together, such as a kind of genitive or a form of a participle. In terms of Greek grammar, there are four key points that will especially aid in interpretation. First, Greek is an inflected language, meaning that word order is more flexible in Greek than it is in English. Readers should take care to discern the original word order to understand points of emphasis from the author. Second, the Greek article is often misunderstood: “The important implication for this less-than-perfect equivalence between the uses of the article in Greek and English is that the absence of the article does not necessarily mean a word is indefinite; nor does the presence of the article invariably mark a noun as definite” (585). Third, the genitive case also requires context for proper interpretation. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:14 could indicate that believers are constrained by their love for Christ or by the love of Christ. Based on context, the latter is probably the case. Finally, the Greek participle can either be used as a noun, adjective, or adverb. The adverb is especially important because, among other uses, it can indicate the manner or means in which something is accomplished.

Syntax “refers more broadly to relationships between words in the larger scheme of discourse and sentence structures” (576). Readers should be aware of the following syntactical terms:

  • Aposiopesis: the breaking off of a speech or statement due to strong emotion, modesty, or other reasons;
  • Hendiadys: an arrangement of two or more expressions that essentially convey the same idea;
  • Pleonasm: a form of redundancy by which a previously expressed idea is repeated as a way of speaking (591).

Discourse refers to “any coherent sequence of phrases or sentences, whether a narrative, logical argument, or poetic portion of text” (576–77). When conducting a discourse analysis, readers should first look for boundary features, or the beginning and end of a unit of text. Next, they should look for cohesion, features that connect the text to make it a unified whole. Relations and prominence are also important: “Relations deal with the logic of the thought flow of a given passage, be it by indicating cause, purpose, result, or another coordinating or subordinating relation” (595). Prominence looks for emphasis, either on the micro- or macro-level. Finally, readers should look for the situation, or the specific cultural context of the author.

The Meaning of Words: Linguistics, Semantics, and Exegetical Fallacies

If you want to know what a word means, what do you do? Even a young child probably knows where to start: Look it up in a dictionary, of course! Yet responsible hermeneutics beckons us to dig deeper. Most dictionaries give multiple definitions for a single word—How do you know which one is correct? In addition, where do dictionaries get their information? To answer these questions, we must first look to linguistics, or the study of language. Language is a beautiful and complicated phenomenon, and we must first study language itself before we can ascertain the specific meaning of words: “Language is a human convention, and as such is subject to change or modification. Words have a history and can take on new meanings over time or acquire additional connotations” (624). Furthermore, evidence from linguistics tells us that if we want to understand the meaning of words, we must factor in evidence from both the semantic field and the context of the word.

Semantics is a related field to linguistics, referring to “the science of determining word meanings” (624). Semantics gives us the following guidelines for determining word meaning: “(1) Semantic field (i.e. terminology) and context are both important for the study of a biblical concept; (2) context has priority over semantic field; (3) if the second point is kept in mind, semantic field seems to be a very appropriate starting point…” (627). While it may be easier to engage in a simple word study, a semantic field study will ultimately prove more helpful in producing a full-orbed understanding of meaning in the biblical text.

This overview of linguistics and semantics now leads to practical guidelines and cautions to interpretation. Here are two common exegetical fallacies that we must be careful to avoid: (1) The Root Fallacy: We often hear people appeal to the “original” or “root” meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word, and we subsequently make a theological claim on the basis of that root word. Occasionally this approach works, but most of the time it doesn’t. For example, take the English word “butterfly.” Yes, the word is made up of two separate words “butter” and “fly,” but they hardly communicate any additional meaning! (2) Appeal to Unknown or Unlikely Meanings or Background Material: While cultural backgrounds provide crucial context for interpretation, background material can easily be abused. As always, readers should let context be their guide.

An Interview on Biblical Interpretation

In conjunction with our new course on biblical interpretation at The Gospel Coalition, I was interviewed by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance. In Part 5, we discuss the significance of language. You can listen below:

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