Hermeneutics

The Work of Interpretation-pt. 2

 

In the last post we embarked upon the interpretation of Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Because of the reality of inerrancy, we have to be convinced that every word in Scripture has meaning and once we understand this meaning, as intended by the author, we understand the Scripture and have uncovered truth. This process of discovery is work. Some might object thinking that it lacks a certain spirituality to approach the Scripture this way. However, since this is the way the Scripture was given, real words, real people, in real history, with real language, this kind of work is no more or less spiritual than the act of giving it. If God gave His Word in this fashion, then this is method that we employ to learn it. It really is a pretty simple concept.

 

We took the time to make a chart and fill it in as below:

 

Word

Meaning

Notes

Miscellaneous

He is he is this is referring to a description of the subject, “He.” Refers to “beloved Son” of v. 13.
the image representation/pattern not simply kind of looks like, but exact picture See Hebrews 1:1-3
of with reference to tells me of whom he is the image.
the invisible cannot be seen/we do not see the description of
God God/Father Cannot be the same Person God is invisible.
the firstborn the one born first/the preeminent one The Son is not the first one born. Cain is. must refer to preeminence.
of with reference to
all every/completely
creation everything that is made This must refer to everything in Genesis 1-2.

 

We have found that every word, or phrase (including the article “the” in some places) has a meaning. Our next step, in this post, is to relate each word to the other. This process is called the “Syntactical Step.” Syntax describes how each word relates to the other. Let me illustrate:

“Bill hit the ball” is very different than, “The ball hit Bill.” Each sentence contains the same content. However, because of the relationship of the words, each sentence conveys a very different meaning. This kind of thing is syntax. It is the way that words relate to one another and is crucial to understanding any document, especially the Bible. People do this step automatically all the time. You cannot carry on a conversation with a person without doing this. It is not as if this understanding is odd, or extraneous to conversation. It isn’t. It is the very heart of conversation, in any language.

So, what does the syntax step look like? There are a couple of ways to work through this step. They both involve an outline of sorts. Again, we are dealing with a fixed text, so there isn’t anything unique and original to the reader that we have to concern ourselves with. The passage means what it means apart from the influence of the reader, or audience. It means what it means as determined by the author, not the reader. To confuse this is to subject the Scripture to the “What does this passage mean to you?” syndrome.

Going back to Colossians 1:15, we can outline it in one of two ways. The first is called  a block diagram and it would look something like this:

He is

the image

of the invisible God,

the firstborn

of all creation.

The point of this kind of diagram is to show the relationship of the concepts involved in the verse. “He is” starts us off as the One about whom we are speaking. We see that the verb, “is,” tells us that the “He” is being described here. So, what do we know about “He”? Well, He is 1) the image, 2) the firstborn. We have more information as well that help us to understand image and firstborn. The “image” is described as that of the “invisible God.” From our Lexical table above, we see that it means a representation and it describes something that is an exact replica. So, “He” is the image of the God who is invisible. This is a difficult concept because it is saying that “He” represents Someone we cannot see.

He is also the “firstborn.” Firstborn as it relates to what? He is the firstborn as it relates to all creation. This is not to say that He is the first one born in the world. That was Cain (Genesis 4:1). It must mean something else. All creation does not mean only people. It also describes the universe and all that it contains, as well as the earth and all it contains. “Firstborn,” as we see from our chart above, can also refer to importance, or preeminence. That makes better sense here.

Notice that I began by identifying the phrase “He is.” I did this in order to show that Paul is writing about “He,” whoever “He” is. From verse 13, we know that we are speaking of the beloved Son. Next, using the article “the” as a starting point, I started this phrase on a new line. I did that for both phrases using “the” and in line with one another to show that there are two of those phrases that describe “He.” Next, below the “the” phrases, I found that Paul uses the word “of” and I put those below and a little to the right of the “the” phrases. These are descriptions of the “the” phrases, which in turn describe “He” in the first part of the verse.

Another way to show these relationships, and is a little more technical, is called a sentence diagram. A sentence diagram identifies the subjects, verbs, direct objects, modifiers, participles, etc… and puts them into a framework of line and groups in order to show the syntax graphically.

It is important to know your grammar. You should be able to recognize the nouns and verbs. A noun is a person, or place, or thing, or concept. A verb is what something does, or is. The person, or thing, doing the action of the verb is the subject of the verb. The person, or thing, receiving the action of the verb is the direct object. For example, “Bill hit the ball” would be broken down into the parts:

 

Bill= noun, subject (he is the one who hit the ball).

Hit=verb (it is an action that Bill did).

The ball=direct object (it is what Bill hit).

If the sentence reflected the other way around, “The ball hit Bill,” it would look like this:

 

The ball=subject

Hit=verb

Bill=the direct object.

 

Therefore, when we come to Colossians 1:15, we need to begin identifying the subjects, verbs, and direct objects, if there are any. There also are parts of speech that explain, or describe, these nouns and verbs as well. We have to include those also. Why do we have to know this? Because these categories are what make up the relationships between the words in the verse. And these words and their relationships are what convey meaning. And we are after the meaning of the text. Colossians 1:15 would look like this:

 

Line Diagram

 

Line Diagram

A person can make the lines with pencil, ruler, and notebook. Or, as I do, you can purchase a program that helps with that. I simply identify the parts of speech and plug them in and that goes a long way to cause me to understand what the writer is saying.

I need to make one comment concerning those who believe that all this is unnecessary. I realize that this is a far cry from the ways most people study their Bibles. However, given the far-reaching biblical illiteracy, it would appear that some real work in the text is necessary. I would have to say, respectfully, that those who don’t want to take the time to learn how to study the Word are lazy at heart and are not willing to do the work necessary to “handle accurately the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Christians are called to be studiers. We are, by definition, students of God’s Word. The word “disciple” means “learner.” Therefore, we should always do what we can to learn the most we can of the Word of our God. What I am describing in these posts is a study method that has proven itself time and again in understanding the text, for myself and men of God throughout the ages. Granted, I am always doing these things in the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. However, even in a good translation, and the above steps laid out here, the meaning of the text is made readily available. You cannot get to the gold without digging:

 

Proverbs 2:1–6

 

1 My son, if you will receive my words

And treasure my commandments within you,

2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom,

Incline your heart to understanding;

3 For if you cry for discernment,

Lift your voice for understanding;

4 If you seek her as silver

And search for her as for hidden treasures;

5 Then you will discern the fear of the Lord

And discover the knowledge of God.

6 For the Lord gives wisdom;

From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

 

Now, at this point, having our definitions of the words and the relationships between the words, we can begin pulling the verse together in the way the author meant us to.

We will do that step on the next post.

The Work of Interpretation-pt.1

 

Over the last couple posts, we have seen that we must interpret the Scripture the way that it was given-in real live history, by actual people who lived, written down in known grammatical languages, given by the true God, and understood by the original audience. Many perceive the Scripture the very opposite of the above. They consider the Bible to be void of historical content, written by men but with a distinctly Platonic spiritual component, given by God and thereby must possess an almost mythological meaning, and only meant for the enlightened to understand. When we compare the two premises, we see that the second more resembles a pagan, mystical understanding of the Scripture rather than a sound, verifiable understanding of the Scripture. Some would continue to see the Scripture as having double-meaning which, to them, means that words don’t really mean what they say. Funny thing is, they seem to possess the actual “second meaning” of any given passage.

What I have attempted to establish is that there is only one meaning in every verse and the effort needed to discover that meaning is rational, sound, and logical. It is guided by rules and produces the mind of God in that text. It is clear, coherent, and at the same time spiritual and heavenly in the sense that it represents heavenly truths or instructions. We do not need to add anything to Scripture in order to embellish its meaning so that it would give off a glow. We must study it by way of sound, objective processes in order for the text itself to instruct US. This process looks like work, and it is. But the text of Scripture demands this.

First of all, since God gave His truth in words, we have to understand these words. These words were written down at a point in time, in a fixed way, using the language employed with meanings of the day. For example, we would not expect Matthew to write, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) and have it mean anything other than what Matthew meant for it to mean to himself and the original readers. After all, he was writing down what Jesus said.

However, knowing all of this, the question comes, “How do we discover this meaning?” What I would like to outline over the next couple posts is a method of study that I use (to which I owe a tremendous debt to The Master’s Seminary for instructing me in this process and exampling it at every turn) and it has been proven to cause the meaning of the text to become clear and plain. That does not mean that there is no depth. Rather the depth of Scripture becomes available only when the text is clear and the meaning plain (understood). What I am also going to explain is also the method that is borne out of the conviction of the text being the copies of an inerrant autograph. Again, if every word in Scripture is inerrant and accurate, then we must understand every word. Words do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of a context. That context itself has a broader context that has a beginning and ending. Every word has meaning and purpose. The definitions, arrangement, and relationship of every word to another is what conveys meaning. Once all of that has been determined, the meaning of every verse becomes plain.

There is a four step method to work all of this out (granted, there are variations of this process, especially as it relates to the original languages). Here it is:

  1. Word study
  2. Syntax study
  3. Historical study
  4. Outline/Notes

WORD STUDY:

This process of word study is just what it sounds like. It is the study of words. What words? The words of Scripture. Since the Scripture was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we could learn to study the words of those languages. Although studying these languages would be expected for a pastor or elder, it would not be usually available for most saints. Therefore, most of God’s people rely upon a translation. Yet, given that a person has a good translation, he/she can still do a proper word study. I am not wanting to stud the history of translations, but here are my recommendations. First, I recommend the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It does the best translation work of all the translations, minimizing editorial interpretation. I would then recommend the King James or New King James (KJV or NKJV). Although some of the words are archaic and a stumbling block for modern readers, it does a fairly good job of translation. The manuscript families represented in the KJV is lesser quality than the family of the NASB. However, it still has proven a faithful translation for decades. A good summary work on translations and how to choose one is Dr. Robert L. Thomas’ work, How To Choose A Bible Version. Having accumulated information concerning the deviations from the original language manuscripts, Dr. Thomas gives us a very useful tool in determining which version would suit us best in translation. At the top of the list was the American Standard Version for its literalness (although in awkward Elizabethan English), and the bottom of the list is The Living Bible. For people who want to study the Scripture in the fashion I am suggesting, the NASB (either the 1971 edition or the 1995 updated edition) would be ideal. A new translation, The English Standard Version (ESV), would also be suitable, but it has a higher degree of deviation from sound translation principles than does the NASB.

For our purposes here, we will study Colossians 1:15

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

To begin a word study, it is helpful to design chart, such as below.

 

word meaning notes miscellaneous

 

The first column, “word,” is just what it appears to be: the word that you are studying. If we take Colossians 1:15 and fill the chart with it step by step, it would look like this:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is
the image
of
the invisible
God
the firstborn
of
all
creation

 

Notice that I put the verb “is” with the subject of the verb “He.” That is helpful so that I can keep it straight who is doing the action of the verb or about whom the verb is speaking. At this point, every word gets addressed. Here is what we have:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is he is this is referring to a description of the subject, “He.” Refers to “beloved Son” of v. 13.
the image representation/pattern not simply kind of looks like, but exact picture See Hebrews 1:1-3
of with reference to tells me of whom he is the image.
the invisible cannot be seen/we do not see the description of
God God/Father Cannot be the same Person God is invisible.
the firstborn the one born first/the preeminent one The Son is not the first one born. Cain is. must refer to preeminence.
of with reference to
all every/completely
creation everything that is made This must refer to everything in Genesis 1-2.

 

At this point, I have every word accounted for in the verse. Although appearing tedious, this step is born out of the conviction that every word in Scripture has importance, meaning, and authority (Luke 16:17). Granted, in order to do this, one must spend some time. However, that is exactly what the Lord would have us do-spend time in His Word.

Also, since the Bible was written in 3 other languages, it is a good idea to have reference works that help in translation of these words. One such works is Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This collection has a good listing of the English words and their Hebrew or Greek definitions as used in the Bible. For example, the word “image” has a large entry and a portion of it says,

 

“1.  ( *0 , 1504) denotes “an image”; the word involves the two ideas of representation and manifestation. “The idea of perfection does not lie in the word itself, but must be sought from the context” (Lightfoot); the following instances clearly show any distinction between the imperfect and the perfect likeness…” (no copyright)

The entry goes on to explain the variety of contexts that use the word “image,” including our passage above. it is very useful. Granted, there are more technical works out there, but this is a good starter for most.

Next post, I will show the subsequent step from the word study step. We can call it the “Syntax Step.” It is the relationship of each word to the other in a verse or sentence.

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