The Impact of Syntax

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When I worked in the legal field, I quickly discovered: words matter, phrases matter, sentences matter, and paragraphs matter. The way you organize them matters, too. I learned this most profoundly when the inheritance of a multi-million dollar estate hung on the correct placement of a single word in a paragraph. When you write an important message, the way you construct it is critical to getting your point across. We choose our words carefully, and rightly so. The Bible is no different. 

God chose His Words carefully, too. 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is breathed-out by God.” In Greek, the word “Scripture is γραφή (graphe). It means God’s writings. It is the graphe, the actual words that form the sentences and paragraphs, which are breathed-out by God. That is an important point to remember. Theology is not said to be breathed-out by God. Context is not said to be breathed-out by God. Only the graphe, the actual writings, are declared to be breathed-out by God. The others are important, to be certain, but it is the text itself which must concern us most.

Up until now, I have focused on context: canonical context, book context, sectional context, and immediate context. Now, we must begin examining that which God crystallized from His breath: the text itself. 

Theology is not said to be breathed-out by God. Context is not said to be breathed-out by God. Only the graphe, the actual writings, are declared to be breathed-out by God.

The Impact of Syntax

What is syntax? Walt Kaiser says syntax is, “The way in which words are put together so as to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.”[1] We particularly are interested, at this point, to distinguish between “main” points and “supporting” points (or sub-points). We want to emphasize what the graphe (Scripture) emphasizes; nothing more, nothing less. 

Analogy of Antecedent Scripture

In examining syntax, we must keep in mind the “analogy of antecedent Scripture.” I will write on this in more detail in a later article, but it’s so important I wish to plant the seed here. We all have heard preachers who read a preaching-text, and then jump all over the Bible to explain it. Theologians call this “systematic theology,” which at times is helpful. However, if our objective is to determine what this author is saying in this text, then we must (initially) limit ourselves to the Scripture this author knew at the time he wrote. That’s only fair, isn’t it? We can’t expect Paul, for instance, to know what was written in the book of Revelation when the book of Revelation wasn’t written until after Paul was dead. And notice, I said “initially.” There will come a time when we look at subsequent revelation (that is, Scripture written after this author wrote). Initially, though, we limit ourselves only to the graphe our biblical author knew at the time he wrote. This concept will become important later on in the interpretive process. For now, just keep it in mind.

Identify the Literary Type             

Part of the syntax analysis will be determining the literary type. Common sense tells us we cannot analyze poetry the same way we analyze a didactic epistle.  

There are five basic literary types (though some biblical books have variations of these types within them):  

  • Prose. This is the most common. It is the plain speech of an author. Most of Paul’s letters are written in prose.
  • Poetry. We all know what poetry is. It comprises about one-third of the OT.  
  • Narrative. The author shares events. Biblical books like Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Acts were written as historical narratives.
  • Wisdom. Wisdom literature addresses basic questions of life. Biblical books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are examples of wisdom literature.
  • Apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature often addresses future events using symbolic language, heavenly visions, and/or past-tense verbs to describe things that have yet to occur (because the author is describing future events that he saw). The book of Revelation is the classic example. 

Watch Those Chapter Divisions

We must remember the graphe is God-breathed. The chapter and verse divisions are not. They were dropped-in later as reference points. Often, though, they can trick our minds into interrupting an author’s thought-flow. 

For example, the casual reader comes to 1 Corinthians 13 and hears comforting words concerning love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast . . .” Verses from this passage are found on greeting cards, funeral tracts, yearbook signings, wedding announcements, and the like. Actually, these “Hallmark moments” misuse these verses by divorcing them from their syntactical framework. The “love” chapter is charming, but it wasn’t meant to charm. It was meant to challenge. It is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14. Chapter 12 exposes the jealous, selfish ambition of the Corinthians. Chapter 14 exposes the abuse of spiritual gifts (namely, tongues) fueled by that same jealous, selfish ambition. Tucked in-between, the Spirit unmasks the inner motives of their hearts with a caricature (personification) of love.

Think of it this way. I went to an art district in Paris, France recently. It had dozens of the world’s great artists and their paintings on display. I don’t know enough about art to appreciate it the way I should. Therefore, I was attracted to an artist in the corner. He didn’t paint priceless pieces of art at all. He drew caricatures. You sit, and he draws a cartoonish picture of you. The finished work exaggerates your imperfections. Paul is painting a caricature of the Corinthians, a caricature that draws attention to their lack of love Indeed, if we properly preserved the biblical author’s syntax, it would be the last thing we would want on a Hallmark wedding announcement. In effect, we would be announcing the bride and groom’s lack of love (which was Paul’s point)!

1 Corinthians 13 is a lovely literary piece, in that it speaks preeminently of love. A syntax analysis, though, reveals it is a “lovely rebuke” meant to expose their lovelessness (and ours). You might not notice that on the first reading of the letter. I had to read it many times before I discovered it.

Perhaps that is the salient point toward which I’m aiming. Syntax doesn’t always settle-in on the first reading. I read Romans 46 times in a row (not in one day!) before I ever looked at a commentary. Why? I wanted the syntax ingrained in my consciousness before I looked elsewhere. Once I read the commentaries, it became obvious to me which ones had taken the time to let the syntax settle-in. Most jumped right in and started parsing individual words without ever considering how they are connected to the larger thought-unit, much less the entire letter.

Take the necessary time to read an entire book—over and over again—before you preach it. You won’t regret it. You’ll begin to feel the impact of syntax, and it will sharpen your preaching.

[1]Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker Books, 1981), 89.

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Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.