Last week, I posted about getting the big picture of the passages of Scripture we study. That involves examining large sections, chapters, and paragraphs with a view to seeing the main flow of thought. The basic unit of all of these various divisions is the sentence. Some sentences are quite long, though, and we need to break them down further. McCartney and Clayton in their book talk about breaking down large sentences into basic units of thought. This is very helpful when we have to unravel something like the apostle Paul, who often wrote very long sentences. A basic unit of thought is the the one that contains a subject and a verb. Paul's words, "And you were dead" is a basic unit of thought. The phrase "in trespasses and sins" is not.
If basic thought units are the building blocks of sentences, and sentences make paragraphs, then the building blocks of those thought units are words. Words are the details of sentences, and they are important. However, they are only important as they relate to other words in their immediate context. To say the word "prophet" is rather meaningless on its own, but once you put it in with a bunch of other words, like "a prophet speaks God's words," you have a thought unit.
Lots of bible studies make great use of word study. Now, word study should not really come into importance until we've figured out the bigger picture, but as we are reading, we may find ourselves asking questions about a certain word and what it means. Words have ranges of meaning. The word "flesh" in Scripture can mean different things; it can mean my physical body, or it can mean my sinful nature. The context determines the use of the word. Even if we look up the word in a dictionary and see a list of potential meanings, we still have to look back to the context to see which meaning the author intended. He will not mean all ranges of meaning; he will have one in mind.
There are good tools to help us understand the meaning of words. We can use English dictionaries, but they include possible meanings, and we still have to know which one applies to our Greek word. It's a good place to start, though. We can use bible dictionaries, like Vine's to help us. I have not used Vine's enough to offer much of an opinion. It relies on the KJV, and I have never really used that for study. Concordances are very helpful, though, and they are available for a variety of versions. A concordance helps by showing us how words are used throughout the Scriptures. Some bibles have concordances in the back, but they are not exhaustive. I purchased Crossway's concordance of the ESV a couple of years ago, and I use it often. When we do look up words in a concordance, we do need to remember to check the context of those occurrences.
McCartney and Clayton warn against too much word study:
Contrary to the advice of many textbooks on interpretation, in our opinion one should not spend a great deal of time on word study. In fact a lot of dubious interpretation gets started this way.
They go on to mention some common misapplications of the word study. I won't summarize them all, because I think it would be better to see for yourself. D.A. Carson also covers these concerns very well in his book Exegetical Fallacies.
The most common word study misuse is to treat the etymology of a word as being crucial to its meaning in the text. The authors give this example:
Another popular etymological conclusion is that the Greek word for "sin" means "missing the mark." That this is what it meant for Home's archers six centuries before the NT is undoubted. It is unlikely, however, that the biblical authors saw sin as simply being a bit off target. Its usage is always in contexts demanding a meaning of "offending God."
Another common misuse of etymological study is to define Greek words by reference to English words that are derived from them. For example, 2 Corinthians 9:7 talks about a cheerful giver. That word "cheerful" is where our word "hilarious" comes from. Paul is not saying we should be "hilarious" givers. Greek word meanings are not determined by the English words that have come from them. We have to remember that our goal is always to ask ourselves what the original author intended, and that means we have to ask ourselves what the original meaning of the word was. This is where I have found good commentaries have helped me. The one I used during teaching the book of John, written by D.A. Carson, was excellent for explaining many occurrences of what a word meant at the time. Carson referred to Greek language scholars who understood their material well. Most of the time, though, getting hung up on a word in isolation is not using our study time well. The little interesting tidbits that come from such a study may add colour to our study, but they don't aid in meaning.
I want to finish this post by mentioning historical and cultural context. Earlier, I wrote about the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is complete and true, and all we need for life and godliness. But Scripture does not tell us everything about everything. There is a place for extrabiblical sources for helping to understand the cultural and historical contexts. When I was first converted, I was told that it was rather shocking to read something other than the Bible for the historical conext. I was told I should be able to figure it out from reading the text. That was not always true.
The book of I John, for example, was written at a time when the heresies of gnosticism were running rampant. I actually did not know much about that until I took Koine Greek in university. I had to write an essay for that class, translating and then interpreting a passage, and it was only then that I discovered this context. It was helpful to understanding why John wrote as he did. I don't own Bible encyclopedia that I would recommend particularly, but I have read good things about An Introduction to the New Testament, which is edited by D.A. Carson and Doug Moo, both excellent New Testament scholars. The Introduction to the Old Testament, which McCartney and Clayton reference is edited by Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard. These books provide a lot of information about authorship, setting, and background. I would like to buy something like that some day, but I just haven't yet. When I do, I'd rather purchase it with bible software just to save space on my bookshelves.
Above all we have to remember the importance of context, no matter how big or small. Ultimately, our guiding principle should be that the nearest context is most determinative of meaning than is the far context. So when we're trying to understand a sentence, our best bet is to start with the ones around it, rather than asking ourselves what the historical times dictated. For getting the general idea of a book or passage, you simply can't beat just reading and re-reading.
Next week, Lord willing, I would like to briefly look at particular ways to approach the Epistles.