Grammatical Fallacies

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God’s Word comes to us in words. These words are human words: chosen by particular human beings in particular circumstances to communicate a particular message. Of course, the words of Scripture are also divine words. Each one of them is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). However, while the inspired quality of the words of Scripture means that they are utterly reliable and fully authoritative, it does not cancel the genuine human quality of those words. As orthodox interpreters have long recognized, then, the words of Scripture function in many basic ways just like any words function. Understanding the Bible, then, means understanding the way words work.

Another article in this issue of Tabletalk focuses on individual words. In this article we look at the way words work together to convey meaning. The relationship of words is often called grammar or syntax. Grammar is crucial to rightly interpreting any phrase. Consider the three phrases go for thirty miles, go for some bread, and go for broke. The preposition for establishes a grammatical relationship between the imperative verb go and the words that follow. This relationship is not the same in these three sentences, and we would badly mistake meaning if we did not rightly identify the relationship in each case.

Readers of the Bible are confronted with the need to make good decisions about grammatical relationships on every page. Understanding and applying God’s Word well requires that we identify these relationships well. Our focus in this article will be on some of the common mistakes that people make in analyzing the grammar of Scripture.

As a way of keeping our subject focused, we will describe these grammatical fallacies by looking at one particular grammatical construction: the Greek genitive case. Three of the Greek cases have pretty straightforward equivalents in English (matching up with our subjective, objective, and vocative cases). But two others are more complicated, and the genitive may be the most interesting—and challenging.

The Literal Fallacy

The genitive construction, usually involving two nouns next to each other, cannot be simply mapped into English equivalents. Beginning Greek students are usually taught to insert the English preposition of between the two words in the genitive relationship in order to capture the basic idea of the relationship’s meaning. But, in fact, the Greek genitive has no preposition equivalent to our of. Sometimes using an of works well to capture the meaning of this grammatical feature of Greek. But at other times it can be misleading or simply wrong.

As some interpreters have noted, a better English equivalent might be our “double noun” construction, as in fire truck. This phrase means, basically, “a truck that has something to do with fire.” But the important point here is this: certain grammatical constructions in the original languages of Scripture simply have no neat equivalent in English. The structure of the languages differs. There is no “literal” equivalent.

Readers of the English Bible need to remember, then, that translators often have to make decisions about how to render a particular grammatical form in the original languages into English. Where that decision is a tough one, footnotes or marginal notes often provide an alternative. Comparing different English versions of the Bible can also help in identifying these kinds of issues.

The Artificial Fallacy

The ball hit the bat.” If you are a typical English-speaker, you did not analyze this statement grammatically before you understood it. You did not say to yourself “Now, because ball comes before the verb, it must be the subject; and because bat comes after the verb, it must be the object.” Nor, if you are composing an English sentence, do you think in these grammatical categories. Indeed, if forty years of teaching Greek to English-speaking students is any indication, most of us don’t even know English grammatical categories. Yet we are usually pretty successful in saying what we want to say and in understanding what other people are saying.

The biblical authors were probably much like us. As they wrote, they were not explicitly thinking in grammatical categories. Nor did their first readers use grammar consciously to understand what they were hearing or reading. Modern interpreters of the Bible are separated from the language of the biblical authors by many centuries; none of us has the natural affinity to the languages that the original native speakers would have had. So we use grammatical categories to analyze the words of Scripture.

Experts in Greek grammar often identify eight to ten major “ideas” of the genitive; students learn these and then try to attach one of these categories to a particular genitive construction in the Bible. So, for instance, Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 5:14 that “the love of Christ controls us” (ESV) might be construed as a “subjective” genitive (Christ is the “subject” of love)—“Christ’s love compels us” (NIV)—or an “objective” genitive (Christ as the “object” of love)—“our love for Christ controls us.” These categories can be very helpful and are probably, indeed, necessary as a way of accurately understanding the grammar of Scripture. But we have to remember that the categories are somewhat artificial and might be misleading at times. For instance, Paul may have deliberately kept the relationship between “love” and “Christ” ambiguous to communicate a bigger idea: the love relationship between Christ and the believer, both His love for us and our love for Him.

The Fallacy of Neglect

That our grammatical categories are somewhat artificial does not mean we should ignore the importance of fine distinctions. Consider the genitive construction in Colossians 1:15, where Paul calls Christ “the firstborn of [genitive construction] creation.” Here is a good example of a place where using the default English of to render the genitive gets us into trouble. “Firstborn of creation” is most naturally construed to mean “the one who was born first among all creation.” But categorizing Christ as a created being falls into the Arian heresy. Christ, the second person of the Godhead, is eternal; He is not a created being. And so a better translation of this particular genitive would be “the firstborn over all creation” (HCSB; NKJV; NIV). We know this is a better rendering because the word firstborn often has the metaphorical sense “supreme,” and because in the verse immediately following, Paul affirms that Christ was the one through whom the whole universe came into being (v. 16).

The point, then, is that careful analysis of just what particular grammatical constructions are communicating is very important. The particular words found in the construction will usually be especially important. Consider, for instance, three different English of constructions: “this pencil of mine,” “this wife of mine,” “this God of mine.” We might classify all three as “possessive.” But what a difference there is among the ways I “possess” a pencil, my wife, and my God.

The Fallacy of Neglecting Expectations

I was chatting with a student in my office a couple of years ago and mentioned, in passing, “the photograph of Ansel Adams.” (I am a keen amateur photographer.) The minute I uttered the phrase, I recognized that I had probably miscommunicated. Because Ansel Adams is a famous photographer, my student immediately construed my phrase to mean “a photograph taken by Ansel Adams.” In fact, however, I was referring to a famous photograph taken of Adams, standing on top of his station wagon with his big view camera in Yosemite Valley. What this illustration reveals is that our expectations are crucial when we encounter grammatical constructions.

Let me bring this home to one of the most controversial genitives in the New Testament. In eight passages, Paul puts faith and Christ into a genitive relationship (for example, Rom. 3:22). This genitive has traditionally been understood as an objective genitive (Christ as the object of faith) and thus rendered “faith in [that is, directed toward] Christ” (most English versions). But the genitive could also be a subjective one (Christ as the subject): “the faith [or faithfulness] exercised by Christ” (see CEB ; NET). Both renderings can make sense in their respective contexts, and both are theologically unobjectionable. But what would the expectations of the hearers or readers of this construction have been? They would probably have assumed that Christ is the object. Why? Because Christ is frequently the object of the verb believe in the NT; only rarely is He the subject.

The fallacy here, then, would be to ignore the larger linguistic framework in which particular grammatical constructions are found. This linguistic framework creates certain expectations in how words will be related to one another. Grammar always functions within a larger context. As we come to particular grammatical constructions in our English Bibles, then, we will be better equipped to interpret them accurately the better we know Scripture in general.

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