I’ll Take Hermeneutics for $1,000, Alex: 5 Bible Study Principles for Interpretation

Bible reading is profitable for the soul. Cracking open your Bible every day is essential and necessary to understand and hear God’s word. But let us not confuse it with Bible study. Study is much different than reading. Studying a passage forces us to slow down and ask questions of the text, whereas reading simply informs us of general things in the text. Over the next several weeks I hope to present some Bible study tips to help you get the most out of your study. Note that I said study–not reading! There are five general principles I believe can aid your study of the word. They will be presented below and over the next several posts will be dealt with in a more comprehensive fashion.

bow to your king, King context

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Context is king,” on more than one occasion. It is absolutely true and vital for both the interpretation and the application of Scripture. In our post dealing with context, we will explore three main areas of context: (1) the immediate context – this is the surrounding verses of the passage you are studying. (2) the book context – this deals with the reason behind the author’s writing of the book. It speaks volumes on interpretation. (3) other author writings – authors had particular phrases, words, and concepts that they used in their writings. Most New Testament authors wrote more than one book and so their language may have spilled over in these other writings. It is important to look at these other writings when determining how certain words are used.

the background information station

Like context, background information is vital for correctly understanding Scripture. As Westerners, we have the habit of reading Scripture through our cultural lenses. This tends to be a great travesty in the area of hermeneutics and yields false interpretations. In our post dealing with background, we will consider the cultural nuances that help us interpret Scripture accurately, particularly in the Gospels and parables.

Discover Diagramming joys

They’re hard, they’re a lot of work, and no one likes to diagram—ever! But diagramming a passage will help you understand the syntax like nobody’s business. When you understand the main subjects and verbs of a clause you will have a better overall understanding of the structure of a passage. And seeing a visual representation takes a step further, especially as you are dealing with multiple sentences. In our post on diagramming, we will examine three different types of visuals that will help understand the syntax of a passage: line diagramming, text flow diagramming, tracing (AKA, arcing, or bracketing).

Original language blues

The Bible was written in three different languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. The goal, therefore, is to get back to the original authorial intent. What did the author mean when he used this particular word? Why did he choose to use that particular structure? These are questions that good word studies can answer. But be careful not to fall into the pit of word study fallacies. All of this will be discussed in our post on word studies.

structural masonry

Applying the hermeneutical principles can often be a daunting task. As overwhelming as it can seem, there are rules, or a structure, if you will, that guide these principles. When the proper foundation is laid the rest of the rules are a bit easier to manage. In our microwave-instant generation, we have tendencies to skip straight to the results without actually preparing the ingredients. Imagine a construction company attempting to build a skyscraper without a blueprint! It would all be guesswork and disaster would certainly follow. Interpreting God’s word is a much more serious thing and skipping the instructions results in spiritual disaster. For more on bad hermeneutical principles, see my earlier post on ways you may be interpreting Scripture wrong. In the final post, we will see how this structure works and how each of the principles is built upon each other.

Bible study is work. No great Bible teacher got to be great or understand the things he understands without first putting in the work. As we embark on this journey together it will be important to keep in mind that the methods presented are not exhaustive. They are simply there to get you started and hopefully continue to spur you more and more towards deeper study.

Text Flow Diagramming – Clauses & Phrases

In this step, we will begin to put things together. But first, let’s have a little review to refresh our memories.


Review

Subjects, Verbs, Direct & Indirect Objects

Subjects are the nouns or pronouns that perform the action or that which the action is performed upon. We find the subject by first locating the verb and asking who or what of the verb.

Verbs are words that show action or a state of being. They are either transitive (transfer their action to an object) or intransitive (stays “stagnant”). Verbs also have two voices: active and passive. Active voice verbs perform the action. Bob hit the ball. Bob is the doer of the verb hit. Passive voice verbs are when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon. Bob was hit by the ball flips the action around. When the subject is being acted upon you know you have a passive verb.

Direct objects are a noun or another part of speech to which the action of the verb is transferred to. Jesus taught his disciples. The noun ‘disciples’ is having the verb ‘taught’ transferred to it and is acting as the verb’s object. We find the direct objects by asking who or what of the subject.

Indirect objects are the nouns and pronouns that the subject performs for or on behalf of. Jesus taught His words to the disciples. The phrase ‘to the disciples’ tells us whom Jesus did the verb of teaching for. We find the indirect object by asking to whom or for whom the verb was done.


Clauses and Phrases

We are now beginning the step that will allow us to split our passages into propositions. The previous posts was setting up this step. You need to understand how to identify subjects and verbs in order to find clauses and phrases. Each step builds upon each other and are important to learn. Now comes the task of pulling out chunks of the text in order to further your Bible study.

Grammatically, a clause is a group of words that always contains a subject and a verb. Without either, it could not be a true clause. A phrase, on the other hand, is a group of words that contains either a subject or a verbal word form but never both. The following illustration points out the difference between a clause and a phrase:

Galatians 1:6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel

The words in red color indicate the main clause. Blue text indicates another clause but is not the main clause. Notice that both clauses contain both a subject and a verb. The word ‘I’ is the subject with ‘marvel’ being the verb and the second clause has ‘who’ as its subject, ‘called’ as the verb, and ‘you’ as the direct object. The brown text indicates the different phrases within the text. Did you notice anything significant in the brown text? None of the phrases contain a subject or a verb. As we talk about the different kinds of phrases and clauses, they will be much easier to identify.

two kinds of clauses

Clauses are also independent or dependent. A dependent clause can stand alone and make a complete sentence while a dependent clause needs other clauses and phrases to complete the meaning. The sentence, Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, contains two clauses. The first could stand alone and be a complete sentence. If I say, “Jesus died on the cross,” you understand completely what I mean. But if I just blurt out, “to save sinners,” you will have to ask for more information in order to find out what I mean.

Typically, there will be “landmarks” to tip you off to a subordinate clause. Words an phrases such as “in order that/so that,” “because,” “when,” and others will help you determine subordinate clauses. You will find that most of the time you naturally spot these subordinate clauses provided you are working from a translation that is in your first language.

Types of clauses

Finite Clauses (independent, dependent) – These clauses will be the only types of clauses that will be the main clause. They will contain a finite verb rather than other types such as participles or infinitives. Be aware, though, that not all finite clauses will be the main clause, though they are the only ones qualified to be so. The book of 1Peter is a prime example of this. Verse 8 contains the finite verb ‘you love’ but is subordinate to verse 6 because it is contained within a relative clauses.

Relative Clauses (dependent) – These begin with a relative pronoun, who, whom, whose, which, and sometimes, that. Be careful not to confuse these with interrogative clauses, which can sometimes be a main clause. “There are some who trouble you…”

Interrogative Clauses (dependent/independent) – Interrogatives are clauses that contain a question. “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Many times they will start with an interrogative pronoun. Who is it that shall bring a charge against God’s elect?”

Infinitive Clauses (dependent) – You may remember infinitives from the verbs part. They usually start with our English word, to and add another verb to complete the meaning. “There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel.”

Substantival Clauses (dependent) – These are the hardest of all the clauses to identify. The entire substantival clauses will function as a noun. Matthew 1:22 is an example of a substantival: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken.” The last part of this verse is acting as the direct object to the infinitive ‘to fulfill.’

Participle Clauses (dependent) – In the English language, participles usually end in ing and are relatively easy to spot. Participle clauses are very diverse and often indicate the way an action is carried out, and imperatival nuances, or complemental completion.

phrases

Prepositional Phrases (dependent) – The most typical type of phrase you will encounter are prepositional phrases. Prepositions show the relationship of the noun to the preposition, usually some kind of location or motion. “Jesus died on the cross.” In the sentence, the noun preposition shows the relationship between Jesus and the noun cross.

Unmarked Phrases (dependent) – Sometimes phrases are not clearly marked and you must look carefully to separate them out. In our verse above, Galatians 1:6, the phrase “so soon” is not so easily seen. It contains two adverbs and grammatically could be an adverbial phrase. I prefer to don them as unmarked so as not to confuse them with participial clauses, as they are often adverbial in nature.

Genitive Phrases (dependent) – Genitive phrases do not exist in English. In Greek, Genitives are extremely versatile and “genitive limits as to kind” (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 76). The closest English comes to translating the Genitive is with the word “of.” The Son of God. The Genitive limits the noun Son to that of which Son. It is God’s Son. Although Genitives do often show possession, they do much more than that. The easiest way to deal with Genitive phrases is to look for the word “of” and its noun. The main precaution is to carefully distinguish between it and a true prepositional phrase.

Everything we have learned up to this point will be used in our next post. We will be learning about propositions and how to separate them from the text. Continue to read Scripture and try to recognize the different types of clauses and phrases. Until next time, God bless your study of His Word.

Text Flow – Step 1.1 – Basic Grammar

This is part 1 of 2 , subjects & verbs, in Basic Grammar.

Grammar–blech! Nobody likes it and once we finish our education we tend to forget as much as possible. After all, who really cares about subjects, and adverbs, and adjectives, and gerunds?

As much as we may hate it, grammar is a part of all written languages, including the Bible. In John Piper’s thirty-four page booklet, Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts, he says this about the grammar of the Bible.

An evangelical believes that God humbled himself not only in the incarnation of the Son, but also in the inspiration of the Scriptures. The manger and the cross were not sensational. Neither are grammar and syntax…Therefore, if God humbled himself to take on human flesh and to speak human language, woe to us if we arrogantly presume to ignore the humanity of Christ and the grammar of Scripture.


Biblical Exegesis, John Piper, p. 5

Love it or hate it, grammar is an important part to better understanding Scripture. The Biblical authors used grammar and syntax to convey the meaning they wished their audiences to understand. Likewise, we will briefly study grammar and syntax to come as close to that meaning as humanly possible. With that brief introduction, let us begin our journey.

Verbs-It’s Where The Action is!

Photo courtesy of PXhere.com

We start with verbs because they are words of action and tell us what’s happening in the text. The Bible wouldn’t make much sense if we left out all the verbs. There are two types of action that verbs perform: transitive and intransitive.

  • Transitive verbs transfer the action to a direct object (discussed later in part 2 of Basic Grammar). In the sentence, Bob hit the ball, the action of the verb hit is transferred to the word ball. In simple terms to be a transitive verb, there must be someone or something for the action of the verb to act upon.
  • Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, have no object which to act upon. They are still verbs but the action remains, so to speak, with the person or thing performing the action. In John 11:35 we read, Jesus wept. The verb is wept yet it does not weep on someone or something. The verb is somewhat stagnant and has no object. Therefore it is called Intransitive. That is, the action does not transfer to something else.

Verbs also have something called a voice. No, they don’t talk but they do show action in two kinds of ways. Their action is either active or passive. in the action voice the subject performs the action. Bob hit the ball, tells us that the verb is being done by someone or something, in this case Bob. But in the passive voice things get flipped around. Now the action of the verb is the subject. Bob was hit by the ball, tells us that Bob is no longer the one performing the action, but is rather the one being acted upon. Passive verbs are usually written using a helping verb to make it passive.

Kinds of Verbs

Now that we understand the kinds of actions verbs perform we need to understand the different kinds of verbs we will encounter. At this point, I believe it will be helpful to introduce to be verbs and helping verbs.

There are eight be verbs: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. When we talk about finding verbs we must also include these being verbs. Take John 1:1 for example:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The two be verbs are italicized and underlined and show a state of being. When picking out verbs and their subjects it is important to include these in clauses you may separate out. It is also worth pointing out that Being verbs don’t take an object and can be considered passive.

Auxillary verbs, or Helping verbs, help complete the action of the verb. Galatians 1:4-5 is a prime example of a helping verb.

Galatians 1:3–4 Grace to you and peace… from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

The word ‘might’ helps to complete the meaning of the verb, deliver. Helping verbs should be included in their clauses as we begin to separate them. Now, let’s continue with the kinds of verbs we will encounter. There are three major kinds of verbs we typically see.

  1. Finite – these verbs simply assert something happened. These are the only kinds of verbs that can be the main verb of the main clause. We will flesh all this out in later posts.
  2. Participles – these guys are often used as an adjective and describe further the noun or verb they modify. In John 6:51 Jesus states, I am the living bread. The word ‘living’ is describing Jesus further. He is not only bread that came from Heaven, He is living bread. Participles also indicate the means or the manner in which action is carried out. Paul uses participles in this way in Ephesians 6:17-18 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.

    The two participles in verse 18, praying and being watchful, modify and describe the manner how spiritual armor, namely the sword of the Spirit and the helmet of salvation are taken up through prayer and watchfulness. (Cohick, L. H. (2010). Ephesians. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. pg. 158). Participles can be versatile in their function so it is important to ascertain their use when you encounter them.
  3. Infinitives – These are verbs with our English word ‘to’ preceding them. Like participles, they can be used a number of ways including being objects, subjects, and showing the purpose of an action.

1 Samuel 15:22 So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.

The infinitive ‘to obey’ is functioning as the subject of this sentence. In the New Testament infinitives can also be used to express the purpose or result of an action. In Matthew 4:1 the infinitive ‘to be tempted’ is semantically functioning as an infinitive of purpose. The passage then could be read as “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness [for the purpose] to be tempted by the devil.” As we progress through the steps we will touch on how infinitives are subordinate to their clauses.

Subjects

A subject of a sentence is a noun that performs the action of the verb or is acted upon by the verb. In order to find the subject of a clause you simply ask who or what performed the action. Using the example of John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” we can find the verb, wept, and ask who or what wept? The answer is Jesus is the one who wept. This would be the subject of that clause. Of course things become a bit more complicated when there are several clauses in a sentence. Sometimes the main subject and main verb are separated by several clauses and phrases. When this is the case, care must be taken to pick out the correct pieces. 1Peter 1:10 should suffice for an example.

1 Peter 1:10. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully…

At first glance it is easy to think that prophets is the subject and prophesied is the verb. But the entire relative clause has to be ignored to find the correct verb for the word prophet. Once we go over the different kinds of clauses and phrases it should become a little more clear. In our next post we will begin to flesh out grammar a bit more as we talk about direct objects and indirect objects.

Below is a practice sheet you can download. The answers are given on the second page.

Bible & Coffee-An Aid to Help With Bible Study

introduction

One of the greatest needs our culture has at this moment is understanding what the Bible says and the proper way to interpret and apply what has been read. Interpreting passages wrongly gives us a skewed perspective of who God really is and what He has promised us through the gospel. On the other hand, a close and careful reading allows us to see Him as Scripture proclaims.

One of the best tools to accomplish this is text flow diagramming. You may have heard this method referred to as block diagramming, semantic diagramming, text hierarchy, phrasing, or numerous other labels. The main gist of a text flow is to visually layout a passage of Scripture so that you can clearly see the main points of a passage. It is done through a several step process that includes careful reading of the text several times and then proceeding to allow the main clauses to stand at the left-hand margin while indenting the subordinating clauses and phrases under the main clause(s). The result is a visual stair step (or block) like aid that represents the flow of thought of the author. Below is an example from Galatians 1:1-5

Text Flow of Galatians 1:1-5

A brief glance at the diagram reveals the main thoughts of Paul and his companions writing and their desire that God would give them grace and peace through the person of Jesus. It doesn’t sound too spiritual but those are the main points in Paul’s introduction to the Galatians.

Some Words of Caution

It’s tempting to see a Scripture that really stands out and try to force it to be the main point. Text flow diagramming, although flexible and not as rigid as line diagramming, is bound by grammatical rules. How we “feel” about a particular verse does not automatically mean it should stand as the author’s main theme or the central focus of an entire pericope. Therefore, it is important to let the author’s meaning and the grammar (which will be discussed in a follow-up post) dictate what the main point is.

One last caution would be understanding that text flow diagramming is a starting point and should never be the only part of your Bible study. You need to put the work in and dig as deep as you can with other resources. You can see some of my favorite tools on this page.

how is text flow helpful?

Besides laying out the main points visually, text flows are useful as a study aid in several ways:

  1. Text flows give a bird’s eye view of an entire passage. Scanning the page will help you see the big picture of a pericope and the main topics the author is trying to drive home.
  2. Text flows provide a natural outline. Since the main points are available at a glance you can easily outline a passage. The subordinating clauses often serve as sub-points, helping to flesh out the main clauses.
  3. Text flow syntactical labels (discussed at a later time) help identify the connection of individual clauses and phrases to the main clause.
  4. Text flows when done properly, align closely with the grammar of the original languages. (this is mainly the Greek text. Hebrew is different.)
  5. Text flows are easier to learn than traditional diagramming.
  6. Text flows still force you to slow down and observe the whole text.

the tutorial outline

Our journey to understanding the Bible will be taken in steps. It is important to try and learn these concepts well. After every step, practice what you have learned by reading a familiar Bible passage and picking out the key elements you learned that day. Let’s get started by looking at the outline

Step 1 – Basic Grammar

We will identify the basic grammar essential to understanding the Bible. Scripture was written according to the grammar and syntax of the time and it is important for us to understand it, as well. This lesson will cover the following:
• How to find subjects, verbs, direct objects, and indirect objects
• Different types of verbs
• Apposition words

Step 2 – Clauses and Phrases

This lesson will focus mainly on how to identify clauses and phrases. And yes, they are different.
• What are clauses?
• What are phrases?
• Different types of phrases

Step 3 – Identifying Propositions

This is where we begin to dig into the text. Everything we’ve learned up to this point will come into play, so make sure you learn the previous lessons well.
• Finding propositions
• Splitting propositions
• when some propositions stay together
• Prepositional Phrases and their contribution to the text

Step 4 – Indenting Subordinating Clauses

This step will go into detail on how and where subordinating clauses should be indented.
• Two methods of indentation
• Extracting phrases
• “Testing” subordination for correct placement
• Using arrows to show subordination

Step 5 – Semantic Labels

We will identify and place semantic labels beside each subordinate clause.
• Categories of semantics
• Color coding schematic of labels

Step 6 – Final Touches

In the last step we will see what is done once we finish the text flow.
• Proof reading your diagram
• Internalizing your study (how is God’s word changing you?)
• Creating an outline
• Further study

I pray that text flow diagramming will be another useful tool in your Bible study belt. It will take practice and perseverance just like any other skill. But once you get the hang of it, I think you will find that it will be one of the most important steps in the observation phase of your study.

5 Ways Bible Software Streamlines Your Bible Study

Teachers and preachers are often crunched for time. Many pastors are bi-vocational and must dedicate the necessary hours to their supervisors. At the same time, they have an obligation to God to tend the flock they have been charged with. But what do you do when you begin to run out of time and have to prepare your sermon on teaching lesson? This is where most Bible software shines. Most of them are geared towards streamlining your study. Here are my top five reasons for using Bible software:

  1. Programmed to help you get behind the English. A lot of pastors may not have the time to upkeep their language studies once they graduate seminary and step into ministry. Bible software can help quickly inform you of Hebrew and Greek words right along in the text with just a glance. Many software programs are also geared towards those who have little to no experience in the original languages, even going so far as to add sound clips of how the words are pronounced. Notice the bottom portion of the below photo. It follows along word-for-word with the English text, making easier to see which Greek words are being used.
Word-for=word translation

2. Go beyond simple word studies. Bible software is great for digging into the original languages. Most of the free ones allow you to access basic definitions along with the morphology of any given word. But sometimes you want to, you need to go further. Paid software will usually have these types of features. The screenshot below shows the Greek word logos with its basic definition as well as with the senses (how it is used in each verse) of each individual context.

Logos as used by basic definitions and its sense use

3. Built-in tools to help you exercise your understanding of a passage. It’s important to grasp the full meaning of a text you are studying to present to your class or congregation. One of the best methods of slowing down and meditating on a passage is diagramming. There are basically two types of diagrams: line diagrams, which take each word individually, and text flow diagrams, which take entire clauses and phrases into account. Both are vital for understanding a passage. Examples of both can be seen below.

Line diagram of John 3:16
Text flow of John 3:16 in Greek & English

4. Robust note-taking systems. You’ve studied and studied a passage and have lots of things in your head. You grab a piece of paper and begin to jot down insights about the passage as they come to you. Luckily, just about every software program, free or paid, has some form of taking notes. Most of these can be highly organized. The software I use, Logos Bible Software, allows me to not only create these notes but to create notebooks for each study. So if I am studying the topic of Personal Holiness, while at the same time studying through the book of 1Peter, I can create notebooks for both and place the notes in their proper places.

Notes with their notebooks

5. Helpful aids for time-saving study. The goal of Bible software is to make it as useful and time saving as possible. Many developers really pack in the the tools that allow you to look up and read a wealth of material within seconds. In Logos Bible Software these tools are called guides. They focus on two major aspects: (1)Passage Guides, bringing together all of your commentaries and dictionaries for whatever passage or topic you’re studying, and (2) Exegetical guides, which link to your original language texts, apparatuses, and lexicons. Having the power to pull this information up lightning quick is invaluable for those who may find themselves crunched for time. Check out these videos from Logos to see both types of guide in action:

Passage Guide

Exegetical Guide

Passage Guide of John 1:1. This is only a small portion of the guide as the entirety would not fit into one screenshot

While some people are adamant about studying with book and pencil the “old fashioned way,” the usefulness of Bible software should not be overlooked. We love in a day and age where technology is rapidly consuming our daily lives. As students of God’s unchanging eternal word we have an obligation to study and be prepared at our best to present these truths. Bible software is the tool, I believe, that God has gifted us with in order to faithfully serve and love Him while teaching and reaching out to our neighbors.