I often speak with people who shy away from engaging with the great theologians of history. Our own limitations as a lightweight theologian can leave us intimidated and hiding in the shadows of the assumption that the greater the theologian is, the harder they will be to understand. It is good to be reminded and encouraged with the fact that a theologian’s greatness often lies in his ability to communicate the most profound of truths in the most accessible of ways. How much more so is the greatness of God’s written revelation demonstrated in the clarity of His Words and the way He has arranged those Words (the perspicuity of Scripture):
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. (Psalm 19:7-9 )
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
Grammatical analysis is important because God has communicated through words that are structured in a way to convey a message. If, as our doctrine statements love to profess, we believe that the Bible is verbally inspired then it follows that all words and sentences in the Bible are there for a purpose. Grammatical interpretation is the only form of biblical interpretation that honors verbal inspiration because it is the only response consistent with the thought that God has clearly spoken to us in His Word via the words He spoke and the way in which He arranged those words. Roy Zuck clarifies this important point when he says:
Thoughts are expressed through words, and words are the building blocks of sentences. Therefore to determine God’s thoughts we need to study His words and how they are associated in sentences. If we neglect the meanings of words and how they are used, we have no way of knowing whose interpretations are correct. The assertion, “You can make the Bible mean anything you want it to mean,” is true only if grammatical interpretation is ignored.
Matt Waymeyer adds:
For this reason, in order to determine the divinely intended meaning of Scripture, the interpreter must be careful to analyze the grammar of any given passage according to the normal grammatical use of that language at the time the passage was written.
Waymeyer’s point about the use of language at the time of writing is dangerous to ignore. Words and phrases adopt different meanings in different eras and different settings. The word “wicked”, as found in Scripture, carries an entirely different connotation to the guy in the saggy pants expressing his delight at the excellence of his latest skateboard maneuver. And how many people in the present day would use the word “gay” to describe how happy they are?
Analyzing the grammar of a passage involves recognizing the various parts of speech that comprise the text and how they interact with each other. What follows is a basic component list of the parts of speech that make up the grammar of a text:
1. Nouns – these appear as a person, place, or thing. The significance of nouns is based upon the role they play in a passage. At the most basic level a noun will either take on the role of a subject or an object. A subject performs an action whereas an object is the recipient of that action.
2. Pronouns – these act as the generic substitute for a noun that appears elsewhere in the context. For example the word “him” can be used rather than repeating the corresponding masculine name that has already been mentioned.
3. Verbs – these describe an action or a state of being. The significance of verbs are seen in their tense (past, present, or future), mood (statement of fact or expression of command), and voice (active or passive).
4. Adjectives – these are words that describe a noun by ascribing certain qualities to it. They usually answer the questions: Which one? What kind? How many? How much?
5. Adverbs – these describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
6. Prepositions – these are words that connect nouns or pronouns to other words in the sentence and show how they relate to each other.
7. Conjunctions – these words, or groups of words, are the connectors between one group of words and another group of words. The meaning of the entire New Testament hinges on how the conjunctions join the various pieces of text together. Locating and identifying conjunctions is integral in the interpretation and exegesis of any given text. If we see a “therefore” we need to know what it is there for.
From these basic components the grammatical structure can be organized into larger units called phrases and clauses. Phrases are groups of words that function together but lack a subject and a verb. Clauses, on the other hand, are groups of words that do contain a subject and a verb. Once the phrases and clauses have been identified along with the conjunctions that connect them, the interpreter is ready to “diagram” the passage by assembling these components into a structure that allows him to see the relationship between these components. Observed carefully, the interpreter will be able to capture the biblical author’s flow of thought in how these components combine and fit together. It is not rocket science but it is hard work. And this hard work is necessary if we revere the Scriptures in the way our confessions say we do! Because words have meaning. And God says what He means and means what He says!