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Monday, February 16, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Epistles, Part 2

Last time we looked at how to determine the meaning of words in Scripture. Understanding the meanings of words in isolation, however, will not get us to a proper understanding of the text. We must understand how the author strings these words along to make clauses and sentences, and how the author strings along sentences to make an argument.

How sentences and clauses relate to one another has everything to do with the message the author is intending to communicate. Consider these two parts of a sentence: 1) all men die, and 2) sin. A sentence using these two parts will take on radically different meanings based on the words used to connect them, such as “because of”, “to”, “regardless of”, “apart from”, “after”, or “for.”

In interpreting epistles it is important to go through the passage looking at how the clauses and sentences relate to one another. The following are some of the relationships that we can find through this kind of analysis.

1. Cause – in this kind of relationship, part 1 is because of part 2. Or said another way, part 2 is the cause of part 1. “All men die (1) because of sin (2).” The sentence has the same meaning even if the parts are in reverse order: “Because of sin, all men die.” Some words that are used to convey cause are because, for, since, on account of, and as a result of. Some examples of this kind of relationship include Rom 6:15, Rom 11:20, and 1 Thess 5:8.

2. Result – in this kind of relationship, part 2 is the result of part 1. “They struck him (1), so that he fell (2). Words used to convey result include so that, that, as a result, therefore, and so as to. Some biblical examples are found in Rom 1:20, 6:12, and 15:9.

3. Purpose – in this relationship part 2 is the purpose of part1. “He studied diligently (1), in order to get a passing grade (2).” It is very easy to get purpose and result mixed up. If we what we have purposed comes to fruition, the purpose is the result. The question is, is the author meaning to convey the outcome of an action (result) or the intent for the action (purpose)? Words used to convey purpose include in order that, so that, that, lest, to plus an infinitive (“to live”), and rather. Examples of this kind of relationship can be found in Rom 7:4, Gal 1:4, and Phil 3:10.

4. Condition – Part 1 is the condition of part 2. “If you keep my commandments (1), you will abide in my love (2).” Some terms used to signal this kind of relationship are if, if…then, except, and unless. You can find examples in Rom 8:13, 1 Cor 7:11, and Gal 5:25.

5. Concession – In this kind of relationship, part 2 took place, despite part 1. “He found no chance to repent (2), though he sought it with tears (1). Some of the terms used for this relationship include despite, even though, although, though, yet, apart, and even if. For biblical examples, see Romans 3:21, Gal 6:1, and Heb 5:8.

6. Means – This relationship shows that part 1 is the means by which part 2 is accomplished. “You have been saved (2) through faith (1).” Be careful not to confuse means with cause. Faith is not the cause of salvation, it is the means. If one possessed all the faith in the world, it would not save if Jesus had not paid the penalty for sin. The means through which salvation is given is through faith. Terms used to express means include by, with, by means of, through, and in. Examples of this relationship can be found in Rom 12:2, 1Cor 2:13, and James 2:18.

7. Manner – Here, part 1 is done in the manner of part 2. “Let them do this (1) with joy (2). In other words, part 2 describes the manner, emotion, or attitude with which part 1 is done. Terms used for this relationship are by, with, in, by means of, and from. You can find examples in 1Cor 10:30, 1 Thess 1:5, and Phil 1:18.

Notice that a given term may be capable of expressing a number of different relationships. For example, “so that” can be used to introduce purpose or result. Therefore you shouldn’t conclude that every time you see “so that” that it is expressing result. The context should be your guide as to which relationship is being expressed.

To understand the concepts intended by the biblical authors, we must pay close attention to how they relate the words, clauses, and sentences they are using. After analyzing your passage to determine all of these relationships, the next step is to restate the passage in your own words, making sure to express explicitly these relationships wherever they occur.

Once you have arrived at an understanding of the text, then you should check cross-references to see if your interpretation contradicts what is clearly taught elsewhere in the Bible. Your commentaries will usually do this for you, but you can also use cross-reference tools such as the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, Nave’s Topical Bible, and Torrey’s Topical Textbook, each of which are used by searching for the keywords in your passage.

Next time, interpreting proverbs.

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