Hermenuetics 101 - Part 6: The Grammatical Principle
This is part 6 in a series of blog posts on biblical hermenuetics. Hermenuetics is a set of principles for coming to correct interpretations of passages in The Bible. I think a fair analogy would be to compare hermenuetics to the scientific principle. Just as there are certain steps a scientist needs to go through before coming to scientific conclusions, a theologian needs to go through certain steps before reaching theological conclusions. If the scientist ignores the scientific method, he'll come to inaccurate conclusions. If the theologian ignores the principles of hermenuetics, he'll come to inaccurate theological conclusions. So far, we've looked at the principle of interpreting verses in light of their immediate context, the principle of interpreting verses within their cultural context, letting scripture interpret scripture, and the principle of interpreting a scriptural passage according to the genre of the book. There are only two more principles you need to learn in order to get the most out of your Bible. In this blog post, I'll be talking about the principle of:
Examining The Grammar
Sometimes biblical interpretation hinges on the kind of grammar the author used. This is true both of The Bible as well as modern writings. GotQuestions.org states "Interpreting a passage grammatically requires one to follow the rules of grammar and recognize the nuances of Hebrew and Greek. For example, when Paul writes of 'our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ' in Titus 2:13, the rules of grammar state that God and Savior are parallel terms and they are both in apposition to Jesus Christ—in other words, Paul clearly calls Jesus 'our great God.'" (q)
Methodist Episcopalian theologian Milton S. Terry stated:
Knowing the grammar of a passage can help you figure out what it says.
"The grammatico-historical sense of a writer is such an interpretation of his language as is required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history. Sometimes we speak of the literal sense, by which we mean the most simple, direct, and ordinary meaning of phrases and sentences. By this term we usually denote a meaning opposed to the figurative or metaphorical. The grammatical sense is essentially the same as the literal, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin. But in English usage the word grammatical is applied rather to the arrangement and construction of words and sentences. By the historical sense we designate, rather, the meaning of an author's words that is required by historical considerations. It demands that we consider carefully the time of the author, and the circumstances under which he wrote.. A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture." -- Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, Wipf & Stock, 199, pages 101 & 103.
Figures Of Speech In The Bible
Using figures of speech isn't anything new. People have been using figures of speech since as long as people have been talking. The Bible is full of figures of speech which need to be understood in order to prevent coming to misinterpretations of the text. Some of their figures of speech are common to us, probably because we were influenced by The Bible to use them today in a similar manner we're influenced to keep naming our kids "Matthew" and "Mary". However, some figures of speech are foreign. Whether familiar or unfamiliar, we need to know the the figures of speech in The Bible are so that we can identify them when we come across them. If we read a statement employing a figure of speech in scripture and we think the author is speaking literally, that will lead to confusion.
Examples Of Figures Of Speech
1: Simile (Resemblance) -- an explicitly stated comparison using the words "like" or "as".
A simile is an explicitly stated comparison using the words "like" or "as". Whenever you read a statement containing the words "like" or "as", you're reading a simile. Statements like these would be found in verses like 1 Peter 1:24, for example. 1 Peter 1:24 says "For, 'All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall,'" (NIV). Here, we see Peter quoting an Old Testament verse that says that people are "like" grass, and their glory is "like" the flowers of the field, and what that means is that just as grass is beautiful and green at one point, but withers and fades later, so people are young and vibrant, but they grow old and die later. The verse is clearly not saying that people are grass, but that people are like grass in this particular aspect.
Another example of simile would be found in Luke 10:3. In this verse, Jesus said to his disciples "Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves." (ESV). Jesus used simile here. He said that he was sending them out "as" lambs among wolves.
2: Metaphor (representation) -- a comparison by direct assertion or description
I talked about this a little bit in my blog post "Should We Take The Bible Literally?", and in that blog post, I gave several ways to identify whether a statement in scripture is literal or metaphorical. One way is common sense. Common sense dictates that Jesus doesn't mean He's literally a wooden rectangle with hinges when He says that He is the door (John 10:9), or that Paul meant he was literally hung on a cross next to Jesus when he says "I was crucified with Christ" in Galatians 2:20. Often times common sense can alert us to metaphorical statements in The Bible. But for those times when it's not so obvious, we employ the rules of biblical hermenuetics such as taking a Bible verse in its immediate context, identifying the genre of the book, and being on the lookout for similes.
3: Metonymy ("change of name) -- the substitution of words.
A Metonymy is when you substitute words when describing causes and effects. When you speak a metonymy, you substitute the cause for the effect and the effect for the cause. One example of metonymy is found in Jesus' Parable Of The Rich Man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. For brevity's sake, I won't quote the whole parable, but interested readers can click here to read the parable in its entirety. The parable, summed up, is Jesus talking about a Rich Man who had every Earthly comfort he could ever want while alive, in contrast to a poor beggar named Lazarus. Lazarus died and went to Heaven, and the Rich Man died and went to Hell. The Rich Man carried on a short conversation with Abraham and Lazarus, and he begged Lazarus to go tell his brothers not to come there. “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’" (Luke 16:29), the Rich Man said they'd believe if someone returned from the dead (Luke 19:30), so Abraham replied "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 19:31).
In this example, the metonymy is found in verses 29 and 31. Abraham said that the rich man's brothers have "Moses and the prophets". Well, Moses and the prophets had been dead for centuries, so he couldn't have meant that Moses, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, etc. was living among them. What Abraham was referring to was their writings. It was the writings of Moses and the prophets that they possessed. Abraham substituted the causes with their effects. He substituted Moses and the prophets with their writings.
Another example of metonymy is found in the book of Proverbs. "There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community." - Proverbs 6:16-19
This is an obvious example of metonymy. The writer says that there are 6 things that The Lord hates, and then goes on to list things like "a lying tongue" and "hands that shed innocent blood" and so on. He's substituting the cause (tongue, hands) with their effects (lies, shed blood). God doesn't hate tongues or hands, He hates the sins that the tongues and hands cause. God doesn't hate feet, He hates the action that the feet do (i.e rush into evil). The causes and effects are substituted for one another.
By the way, this is why I'm unconvinced when Calvinists try to prove to me that God hates unbelievers by appealing to verses like Psalm 5:5 where it says that God hates “all workers of iniquity.” or Psalm 11:5 which says "The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion." . I don't think this means that God actually has hatred for people anymore than Proverbs 6:16-19 teaches that God hates peoples' tongues, and hands, and feet. Rather, I think that Psalm 5:5, Psalm 11:5, and Proverbs 6:16-19 are all employing metonymy. God hates sin, but God loves sinner. God hates evil deeds, but God loves the evil doer. This interpretation fits better with passages that teach God's love for all humanity such as John 3:16, and His atoning death for all people (1 Timothy 2:6, 1 John 2:2, Hebrews 2:9). And it avoids the conflict such an interpretation would bring with Romans 5:8 which says that "While we were still sinners" God "demonstrated His love for us" by dying on the cross to atone for our sins. God couldn't actually hate the sinner or else He wouldn't love him like Romans 5:8 says.
4: Synadoche -- (transfer) -- the substitution of ideas
Metonymy and synecdoche are very similar. The distinction is that in metonymy, the exchange is made between two related nouns; in synecdoche, the exchange is made between two related ideas.
Examples: "The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwellings of Jacob." - Psalm 87:2
Psalm 87 substitutes the part (the gates of Zion) for the whole (Israel). It isn't that God has a special affinity for the entrance to Israel that He does not have for the rest of the place. This is an example of synadoche.
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." - Luke 2:1
5: Personification-- Assigning personal characteristics to animals or objects.
Examples: "You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." - Isaiah 55:12
"When Israel came out of Egypt, Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs. Why was it, sea, that you fled? Why, Jordan, did you turn back? Why, mountains, did you leap like rams, you hills, like lambs? Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water." - Psalm 114
6: Apostraphe -- A direct address to a thing as if it were a person
Examples: “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I, even I, will sing to the Lord; I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song. 'When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water." - Judges 5:3-4
"'Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!' declares the Lord Almighty. 'Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones." - Zechariah 13:7
7: Elipsis -- the omission of a word or phrase necessary for the complete thought.
Examples: Matthew 11:18, “For John came neither eating nor drinking.” Being human, John had to eat and drink. What is left out is “declining invitations to eat with others.”
"For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh," - Romans 8:3
8: Hyperbole -- A conscious exaggeration by the author for heightened effect
Examples: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." - John 21:25
"Where can we go? Our brothers have made our hearts melt in fear. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’" - Deuteronomy 1:28
9: Litotes -- An understatement or negative to express an affirmation
Examples: "For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." - Acts 1:5
"For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone" - 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15
10: Irony -- using language in an opposite or different meaning than stated for the purpose of ridicule
Examples: "At noon Elijah began to taunt them. 'Shout louder!' he said.'Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.'" - 1 Kings 8:27
“Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you!" - Job 12:2
11: Paradox -- a statement of truth in what appears to be a contradiction of ideas.
Examples: "Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them." - Matthew 13:12
"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." - Mark 8:35
I should note that a paradox is not an actual contradiction, only an apparent one. In the case of Mark 8:35, the context indicates that Jesus is saying that if you deny Him to avoid martyrdom, you'll actually end up losing your eternal life. If you try to save your physical life by denying that you know Him, you'll end up losing your spiritual life. But if you lose your physical life for Jesus' sake, you'll save both it and your spiritual life.
12: Anthropomorphism -- Ascribing human characteristics to God
Examples: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." - Psalm 19:1
"Deliver me from my enemies, O God; be my fortress against those who are attacking me." - Psalm 59:1
13: Euphemism -- the substitution of an offensive word with one much less offensive
Examples: "After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, 'He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.'" - Judges 3:24
"to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs." - Acts 1:25
14: Rhetorical Question -- a question asked which does not expect a verbal response, but one which forces the responder to consider the implications mentally.
Examples: “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" - Jeremiah 32:27
"What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." - Romans 8:31-34
Looking At The Original Languages
God's Word started out in tres languages, yo. Those languages were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. While our English translations are awesome (I prefer the NIV and ESV myself), none of them are perfect. Some translations are better in certain parts of scripture than others. This is why I frequently advise people to check how a Bible passages reads in multiple translations and not to stick with just one (I'm looking at you, KJV Onlyists!). However, even better than looking at multiple English translations is looking at the original language. It is important to study The Bible's word meanings, grammar, and syntax of the original languages for a robust understanding.
Now, I'm not saying we all have to become experts in Hebrew and Greek. No, no. There are a number of tools available such as lexicons, Bible dictionaries, detailed exegetical commentaries and so on, that can provide a deeper understanding of crucial passages. There are even apps that can help you out with this such as Logos Bible Software.
A lot more could be said about studying the grammar of biblical texts, but I think I'll stop here. Keep checking Cerebral Faith to see the next installment in this series. One good way to do that would be to follow the Twitter account (@CerebralFaith) or like my Facebook page a https://www.facebook.com/cerebralfaith/ Cerebral Faith is also on Minds.com, so if you have a Minds account, you can follow me there at https://www.minds.com/CerebralFaith315